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The Little Foxes

There are people who eat the earth . . . . then there are people who watch them do it.  
--- Addie

Penelope Wilton
Penelope Wilton as Regina Giddens (Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
I remember a friend of my mother saying that he would never leave more money to his son than to his daughter because he did not want to see his daughter in law better off than his own daughter. The consequent disaster of ignoring your female heirs in your will are played out in Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes at London's Donmar Warehouse, where Penelope Wilton takes on the role of the fearsome Regina Giddens. The story of this Southern family which Miss Hellman claimed was, "A play about how the American middle-class got to be the American upper class" was filmed with Bette Davis memorable as the grasping, evil Regina. The last production in New York was at Lincoln Center (the review).

Penelope Wilton's Regina is a quieter, more subtle form of villainy and ultimately sadder. There are times when she almost justifies her behaviour as necessary self-protection. The way that Fay Weldon, in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, points out that Mrs Bennett was the realist and not their father, Mr Bennet, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Mrs Bennet is the formidable mother determined to secure wealthy suitors for her girls who have no legacies to look forward to whereas Mr Bennet wants them to like their husbands. However Hellman's Regina oversteps the boundaries of acceptability firstly in a similar move to Mrs Bennett, by trying to condemn her own daughter to a marriage to her unprincipled cousin and ultimately in denying her husband his life saving medicine. The evidence of what kind of life Regina's daughter Alexandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) could expect married to Leo Hubbard (Edward Hughes) is personified in the disastrous marriage of her aunt, and Leo's parents, Birdie (Brid Brennan) to Oscar Hubbard (Matthew Marsh).

Wilton's underplayed performance does much to limit accusations that The Little Foxes is a melodrama. Brid Brennan is superb as the alcoholic, painfully thin, downtrodden Birdie married by Oscar because Benjamin Hubbard wanted her family's cotton fields. She is nervous and justifiably so. The scene where Oscar hits her is very shocking. David Calder as Benjamin Hubbard and Matthew Marsh as his brother Oscar convey the solidity of the avariciously wealthy. However, the Southern accent eludes both of them. Calder speaks his lines too fast to attain a Southern drawl and Marsh never convinces as he has a heavy Northern European accent. We have no doubt that these men are greedy capitalists who have made money on the backs of the poor, power mongers with no responsibility crossing the line of what constitutes criminal behaviour. They contrast nicely with Peter Guinness' Horace Giddens, a sick man but the model of a caring employer. Excellent casting has an Alexandra who not only has her father's morality, but also looks like him. Alibe Parsons gives a good performance as Addie, the dependable black maid trusted by Horace to care for Alexandra after his death. I liked Michael Hadley's cameo of the handsome and rich Yankee businessman William Marshall.

This year's fashionable stage accessory for plays set in the South is draped Spanish moss. In this production it rises as a cobweb-like curtain to reveal a splendid spiral staircase, candelabra and the fine furniture and parlour palms of a Victorian mansion. Projected on the wall is the company name Hubbard and Sons, incongruous until we remember what has paid for these affluent surroundings. In the second act a well staged thunderstorm rightly fails to lift the oppression. In between scenes there is soulful saxophone. As ever, the final scene sets Regina alone on the elegant carved sofa. Marianne Elliott who is Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester makes a promising start in directing for the first time, in London's West End. With her lightness of touch, Lillian Hellman's play the Little Foxes continues to be a very worthwhile evening in the theatre.

The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Starring: Penelope Wilton
With: Alibe Parsons, Christian Dixon, Brid Brennan, Matthew Marsh, Edward Hughes, Michael Hadley, David Calder, Anna Maxwell Martin Peter Guinness
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design: Paule Constable
Sound: John Leonard for Aura
Music composed by Colin Towns
Running time: Two hours twenty five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1732
Booking to 24th November 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 11th October 2001 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (nearest Underground Convent Garden)
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