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STAGE REVIEW: Rheon is a master of menace

Foxfinder - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER reviews Foxfinder at the Ambassodors Theatre, London, which runs until January 5.

It is seldom acknowledged that theatre-reviewing is actually one of the most stressful jobs in journalism. I was all set to review Sylvia at the Old Vic for you this week, but, for a second time, I got a last-minute email to tell me it had been postponed.

Theatres have, of course, to decide what plays they are going to stage months – if not sometimes even more than a year – in advance. It’s always a risk that one of the leading players will not be fit and well or some other act of God – or the railway operators – might mess it all up.

Still, to cancel not one, but two opening nights makes me think Matthew Warchus, the boss of the Old Vic, is now looking like a man who has been beset less by misfortune than carelessness. Certainly, I can’t imagine Sylvia Pankhurst, the redoubtable suffragette that the play is about, being remotely amused by two false starts (and counting) and would no doubt have sighed wearily and said that’s the sort of thing that happens when you put a man in charge.

So I found myself diverted unexpectedly to Dawn King’s Foxfinder. All things considered, I probably got lucky. The show starts off like a classic Henrik Ibsen – a wan-faced, Modiglianic lady (Heida Reed) is silently eating a basic meal in a cold house surrounded by trees with her bearded husband (Paul Nicholls).

It’s atmospheric stuff, and, as time progresses, it’s clear we are in a Dystopian England of the future where a totalitarian state takes a very dim view of farmers who allow foxes to roam their properties unchecked and eat food otherwise intended for the populace. Farmers thus dread a visit from the ‘foxfinder’ since there is a law in place that says he can shut them down if he finds any at large. This is a serious matter: farmers found with foxes can be re-assigned to labour in sinister-sounding ‘factories’.

Enter, then, the dreaded foxfinder in the shape of Iwan Rheon – the Game of Thrones star – who is a strange, charmless, enigmatic figure concerned with ‘England’s food supply’, which gives the piece a certain contemporary resonance, and he’s big on nature and its mysteries. There is an interesting turn along the way from Bryony Hannah as an agitated neighbour who gets away with shamelessly stealing several scenes as her eyes dart around the stage seeing hidden menace in every corner.

I would not go expecting a conventional play at all, but if you are into strange, eerie pieces, where nothing is ever quite as it seems – and like to see a television star in Rheon who also happens to be rather good on the stage – then this might well be for you. Rachel O’Riordan directs with aplomb and probably makes it all feel a lot greater than the sum of its parts, and, certainly at times, makes the highly improbable seem at least reasonably plausible.