Lady Into Fox

 

Hammersmith Lyric Studio, Monday 15th April 1996

 

Review by Emma Shane

© 2000

 

When one of my best friends from university and I went to see this musical drama we really were not quite sure whether we would like it. However, as my friend put it “Well there was this Muppeteer in it”, so really we went to see it out of curiosity, partly because Louise Gold was playing the title role, and partly because my friend likes were-wolf tales, although, according to our narrators, Lady Into Fox is not a were-wolf tale.

Louise Gold is more accustomed than most actors to playing un-human characters, on account of her puppeteering, ranging from a variety of Muppets to a Skeksis in The Dark Crystal. Now it stood her in good stead in the title role in Lady Into Fox.

 

The show started with Dale Rapley, one of those good looking actors who will make some of the audience go week at the knees, coming on stage in the role of the narrator. It should be noted that both of the show’s actors took turns at doing duty as the narrator. (Some critics mistakenly credited only Dale as the narrator). He started with a scene setting description, which was almost certainly from the opening passages of David Garnett’s novella upon which the show is based. This set the tone for much of the 90 minute uninterupted musical drama, the acting was punctuated every so often with one or other of the actors suddenly switching into narrator mode and reciting a, possibly abridged, passage from the book.

Then the lights dimmed, and when they came up again both actors were on stage in character. As, Mrs Sylvia Tebrick, the lady who had just at that moment suddenly and inexplicably turned into a fox, Louise Gold, clad in a bright red velvet dress, was kneeling or possibly sitting – with the voluminous skirt of her dress it was difficult to tell, on the floor, very close to the front row of the audience. It is one of the delights of fringe theatre that the action is very immediate, with it being possible for the actors to be almost in touching distance of their audience. Louise is wearing her thick russet hair up, now, I shall always think of “that peculiar shade of red” (as David Garnett described Mrs Tebrick’s hair) as being the rich chestnut shade that Louise’s titan curls are. Dale Rapley, as Mr Tebrick, a man whose wife has suddenly and inexplicably turned into a fox, was mainly positioned in the centre of the stage. While, in the back left-hand corner Nicholas Bloomfield was seated at the piano.  For the moment, Dale Rapley possibly had the easier acting role; at least he was playing a character the audience could relate too. At this point, as the fox, Louise Gold does not yet speak, she just knelt or sat on the floor, hunching her shoulders in a foxy way, and looking, with her expressive face, bemusedly at the audience. Her clear distinctively shaped narrow brown eyes spoke volumes to the audience, far more than mere words could have done. When it comes to communicating what a character is thinking, via use their of body language, few actors are as effective as Louise Gold is. Of course, being a professional puppeteeer, she has the advantage of being accustomed to using her body as a tool, but really it is an actors’ gift, that few have to the extent that she does. Dale removed his jacket and draped it over Louise’s shoulders. I think this was meant to symbolise him carrying her back home, he then switched into narrator mode to cover that detail, as clearly he could not pick up a 5ft9” actress in a suitable manner.

                The next scene was set in the parlour of Mr and Mrs Tebrick’s home. Here we witnessed Mr Tebrick’s attempts to carry out normal domestic life with his Fox-wife. Louise sat on a chair at the table, to the back centre of the stage, while Dale attempted to drape an engulfing cloak around her. This looked increasingly ridiculous on a creature whose mannerisms were becoming increasingly feral. She would sniff and snarl and above all bark like a fox. It was just bizarre, and surely a testimony to Louise Gold’s acting abilities, that even though one clearly saw a woman, there were times when for a moment you thought you saw a bright-eyed fox there on the chair. Eventually, after a tussle, where the Fox tried to bite her clothes off, Mr Tebrick gave up trying to get the fox to wear clothes, and they made a pact that she could be as wild as she liked indoors, but that she was never to leave the house. The Pact was excellently sung, for both are fine singers. Like much of the play their pact was presented symbolically, Louise, by this time, was off her chair, and down on the floor by the audience again, after a tussle; Dale helped her remove her hairpins, then he produced a hairbrush and she knelt while he brushed out those thick rich chestnut tresses, so that they fell wildly about her shoulders in a Pre-Raphalit manner. Letting her hair loose only seemed to make Louise’s fox even wilder.

                Presently Mr Tebrick fetched a closed hamper-type basket and a bunch of flowers. He announced to his Fox-wife that he has brought her a present. A bunch of flowers and a pet baby rabbit (from next door); she is to choose which she will have. Will she have the flowers like a lady, or what will she choose to do? He leaves her alone to make the choice. Left along on the stage, it was now Louise’s turn to play narrator. Though her hair was wild, her manner and speech were suddenly human. Up till this point most of her speech had been barking or yelping, and when she had spoken the odd phrase she had retained something of an un-human accent. Now, as the narrator, she spoke naturally, with her own distinct London accent. Louise’s ability to switch both manner and accent quickly is a very useful one for an actor, especially for the purpose of playing different parts in quick succession in the same show. Using Garnett and Bartlett’s words, she described how while the lady may have appeared to change suddenly into a fox, in fact many of the changes had been happening gradually over time. Then, just when we weren’t expecting it, she suddenly burst into song, as the Fox, to sing These Subtle Changes. Whatever else can be said about the changes in accent and style that Louise Gold evoked in the course of this song they were certainly not subtle! This number was Louise at her diverse versatile best. One really Never knew how she would sing the next line of the song, but it was refreshingly wonderful, and oh how I wish I could have heard it again and again! Then suddenly, at the number’s conclusion, another surprise; Louise bounded up onto the table – goodness knows how it managed to support her without toppling - and flinging the flowers absolutely anywhere, she ripped open the basket to get at the rabbit, she flung out something – possibly a piece of white fur, but as an audience we paid absolutely no attention to that, all eyes were on the leading lady, who was perched on the table with her head stuck in the basket, so that all we could see of her head was her mane of russet hair! On reflection, the 5ft9” Louise looked highly comical perched on a table with her head in a basket and her chestnut tresses waving about wildly; Yet, such was the mesmerising spell woven by this whole show, that the audience sat in silence, not a single laugh broke that spell.

                Eventually Mr Tebrick returned, to find that Sylvia had chosen to eat the rabbit. He is furious with her so the pair scuffled and fought. I particularly remember them standing back to back grappling with each-other, right close to the audience. Eventually, Mr Tebrick managed to get Sylvia pinioned onto the floor, where-upon he picked up a whip and proceeded to beat the fox. Louise was sprawled on the floor, between Dale and the audience, so we could not see him clearly, but obviously Dale did not actually hit Louise, though he brought his whip down very close; thus the audience could imagine he did.

                Mr Tebrick cannot contain his fox; Louise, with her wild russet bush of hair looked increasingly un-ladylike, she became a wilder and wilder creature, clearly not human, and when on the floor her she would crawl around in a fox-like manner. Every so often she would look up towards a certain point at the back of the stage and bark. Eventually, Mr Tebrick realises, he will have to let the fox go. He gets up and goes to that point at the back of the stage and opens the window – symbolically this lights up. He edges away, Louise moves towards it, and as she does so the lights on the stage begin to dim, rid spotlights highlight the statuesque Louise in her red velvet dress. But eventually these too grow dim, and I do not know what special effect they used for this, but Louise appeared to pass into the scenery. Eventually the lights were so dim they went out altogether, and when they came up again the fox was gone!

                Now it was Dale Rapley’s turn to take the stage alone. Part of the time, standing at the very front of the stage, he played narrator, part of the time, in the centre of the ‘parlour’ set, a drunk Mr Tebrick, who fuelled by whisky – he spends much of the scene clutching the decanter – imagines what his fox is doing out their in the wild, namely mating with another of her kind, and he is appalled, would she be unfaithful to him?  I am not normally that keen on drunk acts, but Dale really played it passably well. It turns out, that Mr Tebrick’s drunken imagination is simply another narrative tool, since everything he imagines in his stupor, is very probably what his fox is actually doing.

                At last, one summer’s day, Mr Tebrick is out walking; Suddenly he sees her, he is sure it is her. At this moment the spotlight turns on the main door at the back of the auditorium, which had been quietly opened, we turn to look, and standing there, looking surprisingly serene, though still with some foxy mannerisms in her stance, is Louise! She is wearing a white dress, and her glorious chestnut locks are once again tidily up! She edges almost cautiously through the auditorium to take centre stage. Her beautiful voice picks up the haunting melody Nicholas Bloomfield is playing, Let Me Show You. Sometimes Louise Gold is a truly beautiful sweet singer, as this song demonstrated. Sylvia leads Mr Tebrick back to her lair, and shows him her cubs, “one, two, three, four, five”. She is clearly really proud of them.

                Dale switches into narrator mode to tell us how Mr Tebrick spent much of the rest of the summer and fall playing in the woods with Sylvia and her cubs. The hunting season is upon us. In vain does Mr Tebrick try to persuade Sylvia to come home; in vain does he try to get the hunt stopped. A year to the day that his wife turned into a fox, Mr Tebrick is at home, when the fox appears at his gates. She is being chased by the hunt. He rushes out to try and save her. Here Dale switches back into character, and he and Louise both switch into song, Come To Me - Safe In My Arms. Louise is standing on the platform at the back right hand corner of the stage. Dale is a little down stage, in such a way that they are just out of reach of each-other. As they sing they extend their arms out to try and reach each-other. She is saying “Help me, help me.” He is saying “Come to me safe in my arms”. The song ends with them both latching onto the same long note, and their finger-tips touching. On this last note their voices blended so perfectly it was almost impossible to work out which was which. Dale stopped singing a few moments before Louise did, but it was only as she ended I realised who ended last. That note was symbolic, the moment Louise finished holding it, the fox died, killed by the hounds.

                But the show was not quite over; there was still the epilogue to go. Perhaps fittingly, the final narrative was spoken by our leading lady, Louise. She walked down stage, and sat down behind the table. Speaking in her natural London accent, she tells us how at the end when the Fox cried out it might have been a lady’s cry. She went on to tell us that Mr Tebrick was badly injured, and for a time it was thought his life might be in danger too. Not just physical injuries, but mental ones too – who, after-all, would try to save a fox from the hunt? but “Mr Tebrick recovered his reason and lived to a great age, in that sense he is still alive”, and thus quoting the end of David Garnett’s novella Lady Into Fox, which she has just acted out, the shows leading lady, Louise Gold had the last word.

 

On the whole the narrative bits stuck pretty closely to the text, although there were some omissions. The most noticeable of these was in the opening passage describing those characteristics of Sylvia’s that might have given an inkling of her eventual transformation, her maiden name was Fox, her hair “a peculiar shade of red”, and she “had always been a little wild”. The one point they, understandably left out, was that in the novella Sylvia was short. In this production she was played by the 5ft9” Louise Gold, and many people may have been surprised such a tall actress was cast in the role. Yet such is Louise’s acting ability, and such is the nature of the play, that her height was really irrelevant to the drama. She was really very convincing in the role of the fox. She only had to look at the audience straight in the eye, while flexing her shoulders, and for the duration of the drama we were convinced she was a fox. At times one momentarily almost thought one did see a fox sitting there on the chair.

                A year later, while appearing in The Cherry Orchard, Louise Gold, mentioned in a newspaper interview, by Helen Taylor, in The Richmond & Twickenham Times, that acting in Lady Into Fox “was an amazing experience”. Well all I can say, is that from an audience’s perspective it “was an amazing experience” to watch her act it too.

 

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