Writer: Dawn King
Director: Rachel O’Riordan
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
It is a bit like old times at the Ambassadors Theatre, the original home of The Mousetrap. Dawn King’s play, first seen at the tiny Finborough Theatre in 2011, is a creepy thriller set in an isolated part of rural England, where any knock on the door carries a threat.
This is one of the West End’s cosiest venues, but the audience can only look into the remote farmhouse set from the outside, rather than sit inside it, as at the Chelsea pub theatre. This matters, because, having established its premise, the play has very little plot and relies on atmosphere and suggested menace to build its tension. Gary McCann’s gloomy, imposing set, beautifully lit by Paul Anderson, does an excellent job to compensate. Stone stairs stretch up to the full height of the stage and a barren landscape forms an eerie backdrop.
The action takes place in a dystopian future when there is urban food rationing and England relies solely on home-grown produce. After a no-deal Brexit perhaps? Even the weather has taken a turn for the worse and an authoritarian government keeps order and spreads fear by issuing propaganda about the dangers posed by foxes to communities and food production. In 2011, the term “fake news” had not come into common usage, so King’s themes now look rather prescient.
The mysterious death of a young son and a cat gone missing lead to suspicions that there could be foxes on the farm run by Samuel and Judith. This leads to the arrival of a government foxfinder William, a 19-year-old who had been raised in a state institution and who, it transpires, has a liking for self-flagellation. King throws us these interesting tit-bits of information about William, but she does not complete the jigsaw and misses out on opportunities to explore the psychology that underlies her story.
Iwan Rheon strikes a good balance between a figure of authority and a confused boy, not allowing himself to challenge government policy, but increasingly doubting its validity. Paul Nicholls’ Samuel is a grief-stricken dad who turns into a fervent supporter of the anti-fox campaign as if he sees it as a means to release him from his pain. Heida Reed’s Judith is more rational, intent on keeping the farm, but quietly questioning the government line, encouraged by pro-fox neighbour Sarah (Bryony Hannah).
King’s writing is high on overt symbolism, but low on humour and thrills. There is neither enough depth nor warmth to any of the characters, which leads to Rachel O’Riordan’s taut production often feeling more chilly than chilling. As a political parable, the play makes its point, but, as a suspense thriller, it does not really go anywhere. Agatha Christie would never have allowed audiences to leave the Ambassadors before giving them a cracking dénouement.
Runs until 5 January 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith