Usually at around this time, with a few days of the Fringe remaining, I become conscious that I have still not seen anything at the Bedlam Theatre. A preposterously Gothic knuckle of a former church, the Bedlam, for me, comes with a luxurious cinnamon aroma and ancient, practically legendary, memories of my earliest student days. The bar and its posters have never changed. Inside, we sit in seats which are apparently made of velvet, occasionally gazing up through the lighting rig at a ceiling which is as shadowy and as faraway as the night sky. And now the lights are going out – it is all about to begin. It never fails to be as magical as the first time that you were here.
Dawn King’s “Foxfinder” was originally performed in London in 2011 and the Fringe’s echo comes courtesy of the London company Master of None. The play is dark and sober, with a rural setting and yet with a quirky intelligence splashing about at the back of it as well. In this, “Foxfinder” is at one with other hand-me-down shows from fashionable London venues. Both Jez Butterworth’s “The River” (which is still on at C on Chambers Street) and Molly Davies’ “Chicken” (which is still on at the Summerhall) are set in the same, slowed-down peripheral world, a world not of pastoral peace but of gritty rural unease.
The nineteen-year-old civil servant William Bloor (Alexander Stutt) has arrived in darkest Shropshire to investigate a recent fall in productivity at the farm of Samuel and Judith Covey (Hugo Nicholson and Verity Mullan). He increasingly suspects that the Coveys’ farm has become contaminated by foxes. We are played a government public information video in which it is explained that the presence of foxes can cause alcoholism, “sexual perversions” and the deaths of children. The Coveys have lately lost their four-year-old son, ostensibly in a drowning accident, but Samuel soon starts to attribute the boy’s death to the machinations of foxes.
At first this play appears to have a crush on Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, since Bloor, like Cooper, is a cheerful straight-laced government servant who recites his conclusions into a dictaphone in the small hours. His tablet, the only modern item in the story, is a critical prop. We would otherwise initially identify “Foxfinder” as being set during the Second World War, but we are instead obliged to place it in a dystopian future of rationing and depleted resources.
Although none of the components of “Foxfinder” are necessarily original, they might look fresher than they actually are due to the flair with which they are interwoven (a vivid performance from Strutt also serves to quicken this play’s pulse). Thematically, “Foxfinder” is a mixture of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and it shares a somewhat dated mentality with these mainstays of high school reading. There is the same tendency to parable, the same determination to explore power-politics through a local scenario. Unfortunately, the story never clarifies whether Big Brother is cynically manufacturing a terror of foxes or whether the paranoia is a sincere phenomenon. Is Foxfinding inspired by some new kind of Christian fervour? Or is it “evidence based” (i.e. based upon fraudulent expertise)?. The failure to realistically contextualise the Foxfinding means that the play seems more like an allegory or an exercise than a lifelike drama.
The play also comes across as strangely dated because there was a media panic about urban foxes after 2010, when there was a news report of one breaking into a house in London and attacking a baby. Today, however, the fox has been usurped from its pride of place by the seagull. Earlier in the year, it was widely reported that a Chihuahua puppy had been eaten by seagulls in Cornwall. The word “seagull” on any newspaper front page is now incomplete without “psycho” preceding it. All is forgiven, William Bloor. Please come back – your country needs you!