This review of Foxfinder first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

Before coming to the theatre I knew only the title of the play. Was there a fox? Who was the finder? Would the fox be found? Was this a metaphor?

The set implied nothing other than the probability that perhaps two characters would initially appear: a sturdy old table with a slender chair at each end. On all sides of the stage were overlapping, random geometric panels, hinting at nothing but the abstract, filling the whole perpendicular surface.

A blue light shone from beyond the geometry and a smoke machine blew out occasional clouds - initially puzzling but later useful. The lights dimmed and into the dark came a man and a woman. They sat on the chairs and, as the lights came up, appeared alarmed and apprehensive, offering tension and questions: why were they alarmed? What would happen next? Who would appear? A powerful rainstorm thundered beyond the room we observed. They talked of farming and leeks.

A knock. They started, for they clearly knew that something was up. In stepped a tall, distinguished youth dressed in black and a broad-brimmed hat. The contrast between the rustic, natural, unaffected couple and this man’s officious, impersonal manner was stark and beautifully portrayed by all three actors.

The contrasts were unending: they were experienced, with 37 years of farming behind them, while he was a callow nineteen-year-old. They were dressed in practical working clothes while he was in stark, stiff black. They saw their task as producing food to eat while his was to count, to measure, to record. They saw their lives as governed by the weather and good luck, while he denied the existence of such a concept. Nor could he carry out his tasks other than in regular, measured squares.

And what was his work? Finding foxes. Another contrast: he had never seen a fox. His superficial professionalism contrasted with the vacuity of his existence.

I was a little puzzled by some aspects of the lighting. A moonlit night was convincingly suggested when the two men met in the fields at night, and a lovely sunny day followed, enhanced by birdsong. Other scenes seemed gratuitously coloured by, for example, red light - and I missed the point, I fear.

When the Foxfinder, William Bloor, interviewed the Coveys - or at least Mrs Covey - he began to pose increasingly intrusive questions into her private life. Harry Janes convincingly carried out every aspect of the confident Bloor’s business - he could not be hesitant in his job when dealing with other people. Yet we had to wonder what sort of person we were dealing with: an official doing his job or a youth with a repressed obsession?

This impression was increased by his astonishing self-flagellation in pursuit of ‘purity’. Indeed, his human frailty - by contrast with his professional strength - was astonishingly well-portrayed in his horrendous reaction to being treated as a human being by the warm Mrs Covey, when she gives him a big, sympathetic hug. It was unbearable for him, a physicality beyond his experience which also awakes in him feelings long-suppressed.

All the time the fox is the enemy - though the threat to the Coveys is from the Foxfinder, since they had never seen a fox either. It is the fox who is blamed for everything that goes wrong - even the loss of their little boy months before.

The strength of the evening came from the intensely persuasive actors. Chris Janes’ strong, straight and reflective Sam Covey, Hannah Leonard’s warm and direct humanity as his ever-supportive wife, Harry Janes’ crisply authoritative yet vulnerable Bloor and Jo Manser’s common-sense, shrewd and neighbourly Sarah, with her different expectations, gave us people we have all encountered, so that we knew they were real.

And in the end, what? Sam knows that Bloor is trying to seduce his wife so reacts accordingly - or is it that he thinks the Finder is the Fox? The play is full of delusions and illusions, questions and unsatisfactory answers. Does anyone see things with genuine clarity? Probably the women, while the men are obliged to posture their way through life.

The whole drama is of course presented by a combination of words, delivery, postures, expressions, lighting, sounds and effects. The sinister, threatening undertones were constantly enhanced by lighting changes, vulnerable expressions and thoughtful delivery of the script in the natural speech of the characters. If there was an occasional syllabic lapse from the rustic accents it only served to enhance the expertise of the rest.

Not having read the script I am assuming that most of the actors’ movements and gestures were determined or supported by the Director and his team. Every aspect of the play convinced us that we were in the presence of a living scene. Many thanks for an interesting and thoughtful theatrical experience.

Review by Anthony Holbourn. Photographs by Steve Beeston.

Foxfinder was written by Dawn King and directed by Andy Lee. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2018.