Words On Stage
Children’s theatre can be a tricky affair, susceptible to missing the mark for various reasons, including the age of the audience. In children the gap between what works for a five year old and what works for a ten year old can be immense. Yet, when children’s theatre hits the mark, there’s nothing like it, when it misses, it can feel like hard work. Both prove to be the case with Mill Productions “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” adapted by David Wood from Roald Dahl’s 1970 novel of the same name. Visually stunning, with some high energy performances, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is often extremely impressive to look at. Yet Wood’s adaptation never really sheds its literary associations or transcends the time period of its creation. The end result is a production that, for the very young, is likely to risk leaving them unengaged, but for the slightly older child, and young at heart, could prove to be something of a delight.
If director Geoff O’Keeffe aspires to the highly theatrical, and often succeeds, it’s the textual that often dominates courtesy of Wood’s adaptation. Theatrically, it all gets off to a promising start, with a commanding Neill Fleming as the narrator Badger, entering from the back of the auditorium, much to the delight, and surprise, of the younger audience. From the get go, O’Keeffe ensures young audience members are made aware that theatrical possibilities exist beyond the stage. But language swiftly comes to dominate, and if Fleming’s RP English is impeccably delivered, it reinforces the feeling of Wood’s words as dated, literary artifacts. An introduction to The Fox family being a case in point, slowing the action down as it sets up the tale of Mister Fox’s devious thefts from three mean farmers and their attempts to capture him and his family.
Alternating moments of high jinx and physical performance with heavy handed language, using phrases and words the very young, and maybe some not as young, might not be entirely familiar with (few speak of suckling pigs these days), “Fantastic Mr. Fox” shows a heavy dependence on the verbose to both narrate and create imaginative spaces. From unseen armies of farm workers, to imaginary feasts, words are often required to do the imaginative heavy lifting, positioning “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” despite its impressive on-stage visuals, as a production one very much has to listen to. With very little direct audience engagement, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” stays firmly on the side of conventional theatre, even if it borrows a little from pantomime in places to great effect.
One of “Fantastic Mr. Fox’s” most striking visual components comes courtesy of an uncredited make-up artist, who, along with captivating costumes by Olga Criado Monleon and Mara Stort, a first class lighting design by Kris Mooney, and a picturesque set by Gerard Bourke, craft a visually impressive landscape. One that often marries a theatrical sensibility with the plays literary roots, frequently evoking a sense of flicking through a child’s picture book. Paul Elliott, Gary Mountaine, and Michael David McKernan at the mean farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, bring a playful Three Stooges style humour to their larger than life characters. Matthew O'Brien as the cunning, hunter gatherer Mr. Fox, works hard at making Mister Fox feel fantastic, and very often succeeds. Yet it is an impressive Evelyn Shaw as Mrs Fox, and an equally impressive Aisling Reid as Small Fox, who really come to grips with the vocal, physical, and gestural expressiveness required, contributing hugely to the charismatic and theatrical gel holding it all together.
Despite strong visuals, even if site lines from certain viewpoints are sometimes compromised, as during the cellar scene, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a performance to be listened to as much as watched. But the listening is often weighted down with language and references, (The Three Stooges, and Pink Floyd’s Money) which harken back to an Enid Blyton styled childhood. Something those able to access it will thoroughly enjoy, but which others might find a little harder to connect with.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl, adapted by David Wood and produced by Mill Productions, runs at The Mill Theatre until June 24
For more information, visit The Mill Theatre