Fantastic Mr. Fox — Play review

On her birthday, Ravi and I took Ellie to see Fantastic Mr. Fox at the DBS Arts Centre.  We went with some friends who were transiting through Singapore on their way to Europe and their 3 year old daughter.

Fantastic Mr Fox was a favorite childhood book of both Ravi and I, so we were excited to take her to a show based on it, and we were not disappointed.

For those unfamiliar with the story…

In the tradition of The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, this is a “garden tale” of farmer versus vermin, or vice versa. The farmers in this case are a vaguely criminal team of three stooges: “Boggis and Bunce and Bean / One fat, one short, one lean. / These horrible crooks / So different in looks / Were nonetheless equally mean.” Whatever their prowess as poultry farmers, within these pages their sole objective is the extermination of our hero–the noble, the clever, the Fantastic Mr. Fox. Our loyalties are defined from the start; after all, how could you cheer for a man named Bunce who eats his doughnuts stuffed with mashed goose livers? As one might expect, the farmers in this story come out smelling like … well, what farmers occasionally do smell like.

This early Roald Dahl adventure is great for reading aloud to three- to seven-year-olds, who will be delighted to hear that Mr. Fox keeps his family one step ahead of the obsessed farmers. When they try to dig him out, he digs faster; when they lay siege to his den, he tunnels to where the farmers least expect him–their own larders! In the end, Mr. Fox not only survives, but also helps the whole community of burrowing creatures live happily ever after. With his usual flourish, Dahl evokes a magical animal world that, as children, we always knew existed, had we only known where or how to look for it.

Largely performed as a musical (using poetry from the story), the numbers help move along the plot.  Even things like the digging are set to music.  The tunes are catchy (Ellie is still singing the digging song and the farmer song almost a week later).

The actors are truly wonderful–Badger is a great emotive narrator whose enthusiasm for the tale and storytelling style grabs the children’s attention.  The foxes are wonderful–Mr Fox is brash, Mrs Fox nurturing and the 3 kids are the 3 kids (and are for the purposes of this story basically interchangeable minor characters).  The farmers are delightfully disgusting and mean–played by two men and a woman they use a mixture of slapstick physical comedy and gross-out humor.  You are absolutely rooting against them (as you are supposed to).

The staging is quite clever.  Badger acts as the narrator, joining into the action during the final part of the second act.  There is clever use of puppetry, shadow puppetry, scenery and special effects to move between the world of the foxes and that of the humans and show action.  At several points the actors break the fourth wall and do come out into the audience, talking to the audience as if they are fellow burrowing creatures living in the same hill as the Foxes (the animals) and interacting with them in character (the Farmers).

The story is paced well and engaging–at no point did I feel like it dragged on, and was genuinely surprised when we hit the interval and the end–it seemed like it had not been the full 90 minutes (although of course it was).  There are minor changes, but no lover of the story will find it bad interpretation.  We’ve taken Ellie to a lot of children’s theater and she’s never sat as still as did during this show–she was fully engaged.

The show is recommended for ages 4 and up.  However, I would strongly encourage you to reread the book and to know your child’s tolerance for scary subject matter.  It may not be appropriate for every 4 year old or 7 year old.

Anyone who remembers the story or is familiar with Roald Dahl will know that he doesn’t shy away from dark or scary subject matters.  In this adaptation as in the book Mr Fox does have his tail shot off, the farmers are clear that they want to kill the foxes and there are moments where the safety of the foxes is in question, and they are starving.  There is also a scene where a tree falls on one of the farmers during a strobe lit effect that was quite scary for Ellie’s friend.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to go see the show–it is one of the best children’s productions we’ve seen in Singapore (and we go to a lot of children’s theater–all in service of my long-term goal–I want to have my daughters enjoy seeing Broadway shows).  However, I would definitely encourage you to do a quick reread of the story yourself and to read it to your children in advance so that they are prepared for the scarier parts.

Purchase tickets from Sistic here.  Fantastic Mr Fox is showing through mid-December.

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