English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire – Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox – opera to a libretto by Donald Sturrock based on the story by Roald Dahl

Mr Fox – Nicholas Merryweather
Mrs Fox – Miriam Sharrad
Cub – Martha Jones
Cub – Abigail Kelly
Boggis – Henry Grant Kerswell
Bunce – Mark Wilde
Bean – Maciek O’Shea
Agnes – Fiona Kimm
Miss Hedgehog – Catrine Kirkman
Porcupine – Adam Tunnicliffe
Mole – Stuart Haycock
Badger – Greg Tassell
Rita Rat – Caryl Hughes

English Touring Opera
Timothy Carey

Tim Yealland – Director
Liam Steel – Movement director

Reviewed by: Arnold Jarvist

Reviewed: 10 March, 2011
Venue: Hackney Empire, London

Fantastic Mr Fox, English Touring Opera. Photograph: Richard Hubert SmithEnglish Touring Opera’s new production of “Fantastic Mr Fox” is an enjoyable experience pitched at family audiences. This operatic version of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s story by American composer Tobias Picker was first performed in Los Angeles in 1998. It is an ideal vehicle for getting children involved in opera, both in performance – the production features children from local schools as fox cubs and trees – and as spectators: at a guess around 50 per cent of those in the Hackney Empire were under 10. All sat spellbound and left the theatre audibly delighted. That really is the greatest accolade of all, a sure sign of a job well done.

The various ingredients of its success include colourful “boho chic” costumes, and Neil Irish’s magical warren-like set, atmospherically lit, featuring myriad holes and round doors, through which woodland creatures pop up and vanish with unpredictable charm. Other simple but effective tricks include shadow puppetry and various stuffed poultry. One of the liveliest and visually exciting scenes is the foxes’ raid on the farmers’ hens, which has feathers flying everywhere.The simplicity of the story is also an asset, especially when the sung words were not always audible. No one would have been in any doubt that dashing, daring Mr Fox (Nicholas Merryweather) was the hero, pitted with his ballsy family against the bumbling antics of mean farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean – Henry Grant Kerswell, Mark Wilde and Maciek O’Shea, all of whom entered into their villainous roles with aplomb. Most terrifying, though, was Fiona Kimm’s formidable Agnes, an unstoppable digger-machine decked out in yellow and black and complete with flashing lights and vicious pincer-like appendages.

Fantastic Mr Fox, English Touring Opera. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith The most affecting part of the opera, to judge by audience reaction, was the romance (inserted into Dahl’s story by librettist Donald Sturrock) for sweet Miss Hedgehog (Catrine Kirkman) and shy Porcupine (Adam Tunnicliffe). Their scene together was accompanied by supportive chuckles and “ahs”; it probably was not a coincidence that the words of these two singers cut through with a clarity that was generally lacking elsewhere.

Picker’s unmemorable sub-Britten music is unlikely to impress most regular opera-goers, and the incongruous Klezmer strains which identify the character of Rita Rat as a Jew are distasteful, but generally the score fulfils its task adequately; in the context of family entertainment, it would be invidious to mention other areas where there is room for artistic improvement. The important thing is that the show engages children with opera in a lively and captivating way, and should be applauded as a worthwhile achievement. The production is about to set off on a country-wide tour, involving schools in every destination with workshops and in performances.

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