The quick brown box jumped over... the fence and into the Boggis’ chicken pen.
And then he decided to steal from farmers Bunce and Bean, the last one known to be pretty mean.
The three came together to snuff Fox out, and that’s what this tale is all about.
A musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of the clever creature who outsmarted humans — even though the question of who is right remains a bit ambiguous — on the novelist’s 100th birth anniversary, is playing at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, until tomorrow.
Greg Barnett, who plays the incorrigible beast, says: “Fantastic Mr Fox has always been a favourite of mine and when I read Sam Holcroft’s adaptation I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in. On first read I could see that the script captured the book wonderfully and took it beyond for the stage. I knew that it would appeal to both adults and children alike... I knew it would be a great piece of theatre to be involved in.” Barnett’s acting credits include films The Cyclist (2010), Bonobo (2014) and Hot Property.
The show, directed by Maria Aberg, whose works include Kasimir & Karoline (2015) and Wildefire Roy (2014), and with music by Arthur Darvill, is the latest in a line of Dahl adaptations. It’s been playing at Nuffield Southampton Theatres in the UK, and comes to town as one of a slew of shows that are part of the UK/UAE 2017 Year of Creative Collaboration project.
The novelist Dahl, renowned for creating dark plots infused with macabre life lessons, wrote Fantastic Mr Fox in the 1970s — it’s one of his 20-odd books for kids — but both Barnett and the play’s director, Maria Aberg, stress that it’s one for the ages.
“Sam Holcroft’s adaptation is incredibly funny and fast — a really witty take on the original with a few new twists and turns,” explains Aberg. “So, while the familiar story from the book remains intact, there are definitely a few surprises in terms of what happens to the Fox family and who joins them on their journey.”
Barnett concurs. “Everyone I speak to loves the book, be they six or 60. Our adaptation has brought Mr Fox and friends bang into the 21st century, and [this play] has a lot of morals that would be very good for us all to take heed of today.”
The fox who won’t give up his dream — to have a good life — and will fight opponents far bigger than himself for his family’s survival is not the conventional hero. He’s essentially a sneaky little thief, whose heart is in the right place — cue sympathy from Robin Hood admirers — but whose intentions can sometimes be skewed. Be warned capitalists: You’ll be crying robber.
But while Barnett has floored viewers with his rendition of the forest critter, it has taken him some practice. Why even getting cast in the foxy mould had an unusual route.
“I got a call from my agent asking me to film myself for the role of Mr Fox, which is very rare for theatre. So I filmed myself singing a couple of songs and performing a few of the scenes from the show,” he explains. It’s just as well the actor seems to have a sense of humour. [When asked why he made the best Mr Fox, he replied, exclamations in tow, ‘Because George Clooney wasn’t available!’] Clooney immortalised the role in the 2009 hit Fantastic Mr Fox, recently seen for a wild laugh (available on Netflix), and he is brilliant, growls and all.
But Barnett seems to fit the role, too. His mischievous side is on show when asked what he’d change about the play, “In rehearsals I suggested swinging across the stage on a rope performing cool tricks. It got vetoed pretty quick.” But this sort of thought is not completely out of the chicken coop.
Animals talk, foxes and badgers and rabbits are friends. But the surreal story is made more so by Holcroft’s whimsical musings. “I think Sam wrote it very much without thinking about how any of it would be staged — and rightly so,” she says. Aberg explains that adapting the story for stage comes with challenges — such as translating a famous burrowing scene for theatre without making it look like a caricature. All this required the creators to be quick of wit and ready to improvise. It also led to fun — mostly — and terrifying challenges at times. “We had a hairy moment recently, when a vital piece of scenery didn’t come on the stage so we had to very quickly improvise around the fact that it wasn’t there. We got through by the skin of our teeth and had a good laugh about it afterwards,” recalls Barnett.
But all-in-all, to beat the men billed as mean, selfish and strange, offers a cathartic moment. For no matter how willy the fox must be, it’s always fun to see the underdog win, isn’t it?