Roald Dahl’s fabulously lurid stories translate well to musical theatre, and since the runaway success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Minchin’s Matilda, we can no doubt look forward to a production line of singing Witches and Twits and Dirty Beasts. The latest to get the treatment is Fantastic Mr Fox, in a decidedly lo-fi adaptation that nonetheless captures the anarchic spirit of the author’s prose.
Dahl’s woodland creatures, led by the Robin Hood-esque Mr Fox, are reimagined as grotesque humanoids who appear to have escaped from an alternate 1980s. The Fox family wear garish orange shell suits, badger squeezes his bulk into a black and white football shirt, rabbit wears Jane Fonda-style silver spandex and furry leg warmers.
They inhabit what looks like a giant tiered wedding cake, which rotates as it shifts from an underground burrow to a supply shed, to the forest where the farmer plots his bloody revenge for one too many stolen chickens. The whole thing looks like it would collapse in a strong breeze, but there’s a charm to the make-do-and-mend quality.
Sam Holcroft’s adaptation fleshes out Dahl’s relatively brief story, supplementing the central confrontation between Mr Fox and his shotgun-wielding nemesis with a tale of overcoming pride and accepting the heartwarming power of community.
It’s a tad blunt, but it functions on two levels, with lashings of silliness for the kids and a knowing wink for the adults. Sandy Foster’s rabbit, for instance, is a hyper sexual creature, always craving “a big juicy carrot”, and at one point lamenting – in song, of course – how she’s “looking for a boy” but having to “make do with a toy”.
The bawdiness can err a little close to Carry On territory – “I never forget a good hole,” nudge nudge, wink wink – but the actors are generally likeable enough to, ahem, pull it off. None more so than Richard Atwill, who puts in two of the strongest performances as both an evil farmer (who bears a striking resemblance, both physically and ideologically, to punchable fascist Richard Spencer), and a lonesome, drunken rat, who slurs the evening’s catchiest tune. Greg Barnett’s Mr Fox, meanwhile, borrows the deliberate, over-pronunced delivery of comedian Matt Berry, crooning his way through prose and song alike.
Arthur Darvill’s score, supplemented by a live band dressed as bluebirds, is upbeat and rocky. The songs – which punctuate rather than dominate – are virtually all played for laughs, with only a handful of the stagey vibrato numbers often associated with musical theatre.
It’s all a bit shonky, and no amount of singing can mask the creaks and moans that come from both script and stage. It feels like a spiritual successor to Filter Theatre’s 2012 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also played at the Lyric (although they don’t share a creative team). Like that production, this is relentlessly, mercilessly entertaining, even if you sometimes feel like you should know better.
First published in City A.M.