Imagine the distress of a respectable Victorian gent living quietly in Oxfordshire with his beloved new wife when, out on a walk one ordinary January day, the lady turns inexplicably into a fox. This outlandish idea is introduced to us in terms of the greatest restraint and cleverness by Bloomsburyite David Garnett who, in 1922, wrote the novel from which this musical comes, and later Aspects of Love on which that musical is based. The narrator's voice in Neil Bartlett's adaptation adopts a tone of discreet astonishment at his own story, urbanely commenting that although the lady's maiden name was Fox, there was nothing vixenish about her appearance prior to the metamorphosis.
Dale Rapley plays both the narrator and the unfortunate husband, Mr Tebrick, whose love is so great that despite her changed form he continues to cherish his fox-wife as before. His performance is beautifully understated, never going too far on the buttoned-down correctness of poor, struggling Mr Tebrick, though conveying with great warmth and humour the unhappy surprise with which he witnesses his dear wife's new beastly instincts.
As for the fox, the multi-talented Louise Gold is differently but equally enjoyable. Perhaps being a puppeteer as well as an actor and singer (she is a founder member of Spitting Image and a regular "Muppeteer") helped her in her subtle but unmistakable foxy movements. She makes no attempt to disguise herself with masks or fur, but even though your eyes see a woman, your imagination conjures up a bright-eyed fox scampering round the parlour.
It is at night that Mr Tebrick's charade of normality truly begins to disintegrate. As he becomes sleepy, she suddenly pricks up her ears, and is tormented by the tempting sounds of wood pigeons and small animals outside in the dark wood. With increasing desperation the husband attempts to keep his love through confinement and strict discipline, but the gift of a baby rabbit as a pet is the end of the line. It is a cruel test which the fox is bound to fail, yet the gift is most cruel to the giver, since it finally proves that he has no choice but to let his love run free.
The story is fabulous, and throughout the telling of it (which Leah Hausman's production, Neil Bartlett's adaptation and Nicolas Bloomfield's music do so well), allegorical explanations float to the surface of the brain, and evaporate before becoming too solid. Neil Jordan, quoted in the programme, sums it up by saying, "Perhaps all passions are like that, a bridge across a chasm of sublime differences: Mr Tebrick's understanding of his wife's animal needs and his own inability to fulfil them is truly heroic, and leaves plenty to ponder on the nature of female sexuality."
It is also a story whose strangeness seems to demand song rather than the naturalism of dialogue - quite apart from the fact that once transformed the fox cannot speak the human language. In every aspect the production works splendidly. Incidentally, it's also the most powerful argument against hunting I've ever heard.
To 20 April. Booking: 0181-741 2311
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