Last year I saw an excellent version of 'Babe The Sheep Pig' at the Open Air Theatre. This year, the children's play is a Roald Dahl offering which sets an assortment of digging and burrowing animals - badgers, weasels, rabbits, moles and foxes - against some rather unsavoury humans.
The children's play at the Open Air theatre always seems a more electrified event than the evening performances. There's an almost tanglible excitement around the theatre grounds prior to the play starting as junior theatre-goers find it difficult - and in some cases impossible - to contain their anticipation. But there's another reason why this annual event has become a worthy occasion. David Wood, the director and adaptor of this piece, has a sensitivity and professionalism that deserves more recognition and praise than it probably generally receives. If my reckoning is correct, Wood has now been writing and producing children's theatre for some 40 years - another celebratory occasion which fits nicely with the Open Air Theatre 's 75th anniversary this year.
Wood certainly doesn't make life easy for himself. I'm sure it would be possible to avoid much hard work and even some aggravation if he worked largely, or solely with adults. But there's always a substantial number of juvenile actors in Wood's plays and 'Fantastic Mr Fox' is no exception. And, as always, the child actors are schooled pretty-well near to perfection, maintaining character and never requiring prompting by any of the adults in the cast.
Dahl's story is about three farmers who are fed up with Mr Fox stealing their poultry. They mount a monumental assault on Mr Fox's lair, even resorting to mechanical diggers to get at their quarry. The fox family are driven to the point of starvation as are the other 'diggers' in the neighbourhood.
Peter Duncan - best known for his role as a presenter in the BBC TV children's programme 'Blue Peter' - digs his way to a happily-ever-after conclusion as Mr Fox. Duncan has also been playing the role of Macduff in the Open Air's current production of Macbeth. Here, though he's still in conflict, it's a more jocular characterisation. Duncan certainly captures something of the fox with the kind of open-mouthed grin that foxes seem to display whenever I see them in wildlife films.
Anthony Pedley is again in the cast, fully utilising his rich and mellow diction as Mr Badger, who narrates the story. And I enjoyed Christian Edwards' disgustingly larger-than-life performance as Farmer Bean, and his snivelling portrayal of Rat.
Dahl skates over the moral issues in this play with some nifty footwork - even though some might find his moral code rather less than totally convincing. The most important issue is whether stealing is acceptable. Dahl seems to assert that it is, justifying his reasoning by saying that the animals only steal the food they need to survive. I'm sure a doctoral thesis could be written on that one, but I suspect it might require some nimble brain work from parents on the journey home to explain it to enquiring minds.
This year's audience seemed, on the whole, a little younger than last year's. I don't know if that's sheer coincidence, reflects the nature of the play, or is simply indicative of the fact that there's an increasing gap between me and the younger members of the audience. However, the play itself also seemed to be pitched at a slightly younger age group – maybe the 6-8 year olds as opposed to those closing on 10.
It's always hard to compare two shows, and to be scrupulously fair I suppose one really shouldn't. But if I had to give a preference, I think last year's show, 'Babe', had a little more meat (no pun intended) in the storyline and the focus seemed to be on emotions arising from more complex situations rather than humour. In 'Fantastic Mr Fox' there's more to laugh at and more opportunity for audience participation in the form of booing and hissing – always appreciated by parents as much as their offspring!
The artistic director at the Open Air Theatre, Ian Talbot, is giving up his role at the end of the current season. Whatever the plans of the new incumbent, it's to be hoped that the children's play survives because, as I said last year, it's a beacon of exemplary children's theatre. And 'Fantastic Mr Fox' certainly continues the tradition with a great value, and fantastically enjoyable afternoon's entertainment.