Fantastic Mr Fox theatre review: Great songs by Arthur Darvill but lacks cunning ★★★

A new Roald Dahl musical has heart but is short on teeth, finds Tony Peters

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Theatre has been well served by Roald Dahl in recent years — perhaps that should also be visa versa. The multi-award winning Matilda continues to draw crowds in the West End, and the mega-budget Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is soon to launch on Broadway having just finished a successful run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

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Now young British playwright Sam Holcroft has adapted and fleshed out Fantastic Mr Fox, while Doctor Who alumnus Arthur Darvill has supplied the songs.

Mr Fox (Greg Barnett) is the coolest, most daring dude in the countryside and takes on the job of gathering food for his family and other animals: Badger, Mouse, Mole and Rabbit. But after one too many raids on their land and livestock, farmers Boggis, Bean and Bunce decide to hunt him down once and for all. It becomes a test of cunning that puts Fox on the back foot as he tries to avoid the farmers’ guns and keep his clan fed.

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Gruffudd Glyn, Richard Atwill and Raphael Bushay as Bunce, Bean and Boggis. Pictured above: Jade Croot as Kit, Greg Barnett as Mr Fox, and Lillie Flynn as Mrs Fox (photos by Manuel Harlan)

The opening scene promises much, containing the delicious dark humour that makes Dahl so popular with all ages. Unfortunately this isn’t maintained and there is little sense of real jeopardy in the animals’ plight, while the “stronger together” message (ring any bells?) is shoehorned in with little subtlety.

There are some nice characterisations. The hardworking cast members clearly relish the chance to play Dahl’s grotesque characters and give the show heart. Richard Atwill, Raphael Bushay and Gruffudd Glyn as the three farmers are suitably evil, while Sandy Foster milks the comedy for all it’s worth as Rabbit, and plays things at the top of the shrill scale.

Sadly the lack of any perceived threat means the audience is never really drawn into the action. A scene involving an escape from a chicken coup saps the energy rather than excites and achieves the odd combination of being both frantic and flat at the same time. While there are things here to enjoy, it’s a production that is too uneven to reach the heights of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Arthur Darvill’s songs, a mix of doo-wop pop and musical theatre, lift the spirits — particularly a rousing finale from our heroes — but by then it’s felt like a bit of a long haul.

Fantastic Mr Fox is at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith until 19 February and then tours the country


 Book tickets for Fantastic Mr Fox and other shows from the Radio Times Box Office


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