fri 03/02/2023

Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, Donmar Warehouse

Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, Donmar Warehouse

New comedy about a man who's lost his memory is a corker

Remember me?: Fenella Woolgar as Valerie and Rory Keenan as 'Gene', or is it 'Jack'? in 'Welcome Home, Captain Fox!'photo: Manuel Harlan

It’s often remarked that are no new stories, only old stories retold. The French playwright Jean Anouihl got the idea for his first play from a French newspaper report of 1919, about a young man who turned up on a railway platform with no knowledge of who he was or how he came to be there. In the wake of the story’s publication, hundreds of bereaved families came forward to claim the unknown soldier as their own.

Now Anthony Weigh – an associate writer at the Donmar – offers his “new version” of Anouilh’s Le Voyageur sans bagage. It turns out to be a thorough rewrite, with added characters and in a different key, and it’s a corker. I’d put money on Welcome Home, Captain Fox! becoming a comedy classic.

Weigh’s protagonist is also an ex-serviceman, but his war was the Second World War as an American pilot serving in Europe. Fifteen years have passed since he was reported missing, and we first meet him undergoing psychological tests in an Air Force sanitorium. He can remember what he had for breakfast that morning, but he’s stumped when asked what his favourite foods were as a child. Everything about him is a blank slate. He has no past.

Is it the saving of him, or is it his tragedy that he becomes the pet project of New Jersey do-gooder Mrs Marcee Dupont-Dufort (Katherine Kingsley, pictured right)? That’s for both him and us to figure out in the course of the play. This self-hyphenated social climber (mountaineer is perhaps nearer the mark in Kingsley’s mesmerizing performance) has hit on the idea that if she can return this poor forgetful wretch to the bosom of a smart, old-money family in the Hamptons, it will give her an entrée to their world, beachside mansion, butler and all. Her dyspeptic husband (Danny Webb) sees through her game and tries to take her down at every turn, yet she is irrepressible.

If the Dupont-Duforts are ghastly, the Fox family are worse: chilly, snobbish, dysfunctional and permanently tanked on Martini. The prospect that “Gene” (Rory Keenan) might well be their long lost son/brother/brother-in-law Jack, puts them on their best behaviour for about five minutes, but soon they are back to sniping at one another. Each of them, we discover, has an old score to settle with Jack, and much of the play concerns his gradual discovery of the person Jack is, or was.

Brotherly love: Rory Keenan as Gene/Jack (left) and Barnaby Kay as GeorgeIn structure as well as period feel, Welcome Home, Captain Fox! bears some resemblance to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. But where Miller’s play was all about peeling back layers of family lies, Weigh’s play is about building, piece by piece, a character who, for the protagonist, is a stranger. Ultimately, Gene/Jack can decide whether or not to own up to being Jack. And the sharp-clawed Foxes give him plenty of reasons not to.

Part of the joy of this play derives from its well-timed disclosures, scene by scene, from each character in turn. In this it finds an odd kinship with Agatha Christie. We even get an everyone-gathered-in-the-drawing-room final revelation. But there’s equal joy in Weigh’s fizzing comic writing and director Blanche McIntyre’s pacing of it (this is her debut at the Donmar and it’s impressive).

Sian Thomas is marvellous as the termagant Mrs Fox and Fenella Woolgar memorable as her ruthless and lascivious daughter-in-law. These two are the most consistent in their clipped East Coast vowels, contrasting nicely with the vulgar drawl of the Dupont-Duforts. Barnaby Kay (pictured above, with Rory Keenan) fills the thankless role of emasculated brother George with aplomb, and Michelle Asante makes a surprisingly rounded character of the sparky help, who won’t be put upon for much longer.

The other black character, James the butler, proves to be the moral centre of the play. The year is 1959, and the Civil Rights movement has just begun to stir. But either Trevor Laird underplayed him, or the part was underwritten. Alone of all the characters, we never know what the butler thought of Jack, and the omission feels like a fudge. Anthony Weigh might also think to address the odd linguistic slip, given the likely longevity of this hugely enjoyable piece. I am reliably informed that no American, making a choice, “plumps for” something. This critic, however, would plump for seeing the whole thing over again. 

Part of the joy of this play derives from its well-timed disclosures, from each character in turn

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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