The Little Foxes

Lilian Hellman
Donmar Warehouse
(2001)

In taking on the role of Regina Giddens, Penelope Wilton is following in some pretty famous footsteps. Amongst others, two famous Hollywood film actresses, Tallulah Bankhead and Elizabeth Taylor, have played this part. It seems likely that Miss Wilton's performance although powerful will have been more muted than either of these distinguished predecessors and probably all the better for that.

This play is far more than a simple vehicle for a famous actress and, as well as a good performance from Penelope Wilton, other members of the cast show their talent. Peter Guinness as her long-suffering husband with liberal, almost socialist tendencies and a stage debutante, Anna Maxwell Martin, as their daughter Xan, both catch the mood of the play perfectly.

In many ways, Lillian Hellman is a successor to both Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. In her depiction of the nouveau riche moving into the shoes of old Southern aristocrats, there is more than a hint of the former. The strong matriarch who will stop at nothing to further her own position will be familiar to lovers of Williams.

This play tells the story of the Hubbard siblings. They are as a nasty a family as one could hope to avoid meeting. As well as manipulative sister, Regina, there are two brothers who are equally unpleasant. It seems that the only aim of these three is to make money at whatever cost. They all think very much alike and it is rather surprising that they have made it to middle-age without stabbing each other in the back or perhaps shooting each other, as this is an age old family sport!

An early political dimension is introduced as we hear that none of the black servant class in the town has eaten meat for months while Oscar Hubbard shoots birds for fun on a daily basis, and then throws them away.

While one member of the next generation down, Leo, is following in the family footsteps, his cousin Xan is positively sweet and sickened at the thought that she might be forced to marry Leo in order to protect the dynasty. Her nature mirrors that of her father and her aunt, who is a throwback to the last generation of old Southern money. Brid Brennan as Aunt Birdie shines particularly in a speech delivered in elderberry vino veritas. She explains with great feeling why she was reduced to marrying a man who was solely after her name and money and, having got both, was only too happy to beat her.

While the acting of the outsiders is very good, there is just a hint of overdoing it in the performances of both of the Hubbard Brothers and their nephew, Leo. However, this in no way detracts from the strength of the last member of that family, Penelope Wilton's matriarchal powerhouse. She really gets to grips with the part towards the end of the play when she has two big verbal battles with her dying husband and greedy brothers.

While Penelope Wilton's performance was to be expected, the real revelation is the sensitive portrayal of the seventeen-year-old Xan by Anna Maxwell Martin. She is definitely a young actress with a very promising future.

Ultimately, this is a very political play which shows the evil that money can do and also the terrible things that are done in its name.

This production at the Donmar looks exactly right. This is a tribute to designer, Lez Brotherston, whose slightly shabby Thirties living room is mysteriously covered in threads of lace possibly intended to represent cobwebs. This show of old world grandeur is nicely counterpointed with the back of the Hubbard factory wall which injects an inevitable element of commerce. The impact is nicely enhanced by sensitive lighting from Paule Constable.


Reviewer: Philip Fisher