Review: Foxfinder (Ambassadors Theatre)

Dawn King’s award-winning play is revived in the West End

Iwan Rheon and Paul Nicholls in Foxfinder
Iwan Rheon and Paul Nicholls in Foxfinder
© Pamela Raith

The Covey family are in trouble – struggling with the loss of a child, unlikely to meet the annual quota for their farming output, losing any sense of intimacy as a couple – all seems lost. It's made worse when they discover that a Foxfinder, William Bloor, is about to arrive at their farm – there to root out the source of the problems and identify any carnivorous, mischievous foxes – mythic beasts that are so sly no one ever sees them ("The absence of the beast is a sign of its presence").

As Bloor's investigation begins and secrets begin to emerge, the reality of the Coveys' world is revealed, as well as the festering truths that lie beneath.

On the face of it, giving Dawn King's dystopian Foxfinder its West End premiere in 2018 is a canny move – the play, riddled with alternative facts, conspiracy theories and fake news, sits right at home in the post-truth world we're told we live in. The references to food shortages littered through the script don't feel too many steps away from many current Brexit-related headlines about stockpiling.

Winning the Papatango Prize back in 2011, King's script is wonderful – pairing rural paranoia with references to Soviet-esque purges and Great Terrors, she slowly unveils newer depths to her dystopian world with every passing scene. What the two-hour play becomes is a fine exploration of human need for belief, and how easy it is to deny truth for the sake of personal reassurance. Samuel and Judith (two names plucked right from the Old Testament, no less), each react differently to the myth of the foxes – Samuel channels his grief into hunting out the elusive animals, while Judith ploughs further into scepticism. William, an acolyte all his life, has to face up to the notion of doubt for the first time.

There are a lot of things to like in director Rachel O'Riordan's production – outdoor and indoor scenes bleed into one another, while designer Gary McCann's long, unending tree trunks come down from above the stage, planting themselves inside a roofless kitchen. The inside of the house feels as dank and oppressive as a rain-soaked forest.

Simon Slater's compositions are equally well-conceived – slowly progressing from single plucked violins to string ensembles, the gradual crescendo pumps suspense into later scenes.

Stretched across a West End stage though, Foxfinder never really gels as well as it could do in a more intimate venue. Game of Thrones and Spring Awakening star Iwan Rheon's haunted Bloor is full of small, quivering gestures that don't land well because of the size of the space, and the actors either feel lost or anchored to a single table. There is, however, a fantastic turn from Paul Nicholls as the grieving Samuel, fervently prowling the stage, almost as animalistic as those he tries to hunt.

But it takes a while to get to these moments, and a plodding first act full of angsty silences and ambiguity is sadly less than enthralling. Tension eventually evolves, yes, but at times it feels as evasive as those pesky foxes.