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Slinky Power Vixen, Danny DeVito, Gender Swapping

The wedding of Vixen Sharp Ears and Fox Goldmane in "The Cunning Little Vixen." Director Melly Still sets the action around a tree. Photographer: Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne via Bloomberg

May 28 (Bloomberg) -- A vixen inspires some hens to revolt against a bossy rooster. Cluck, cluck! They’re free! Then the vixen decapitates them. Euro-crisis leaders, take note.

It’s one of several curious little episodes in the opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” (1924) by Janacek. One of the many virtues of Melly Still’s new production at Glyndebourne is that she lets the audience make up its own mind about their meaning.

Vixen Sharp Ears (Lucy Crowe) is caught by a Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) who tries to domesticate her. She escapes, meets the swaggering Fox Goldmane (Emma Bell), and has plenty of cubs. All goes well until a poacher shoots her dead. The seasons turn, and one of her cubs meets the Forester again.

Is it an allegory? A satire? A fairy tale? The director leaves us to guess by creating a straightforward production full of visual delights. The action takes place around a huge old tree. Changes of season are indicated by pictures of buds, blossoms and autumnal leaves descending around the branches.

A path snakes to the back of the set, and in a clever trick of perspective it rises vertically (designer Tom Pye). Characters walk on it with the discreet use of a flying harness.

At one point, this twisty vertical path becomes a labyrinthine badger’s sett. Vixen Sharp Ears and her new beau Goldmane tumble down it together in the first throes of lust.

Froggy Gaze

There are some wonderfully inventive costumes by Dinah Collin. A mosquito’s opalescent wings are suggested by a clear plastic raincoat. A child appears in a green leotard with eyes stitched onto his gloves: When he holds them up above his head, the effect is amusingly froggy.

The vocal lines are mostly short, sweet snatches of musical dialogue with few opportunities for extended lyrical display. It’s up to the orchestra to supply atmosphere, tension and wit, and here conductor Vladimir Jurowski comes into his own. The strings murmur mysteriously at the opening. The speeds change naturally and spontaneously. The wedding music of Vixen and Fox blares out with triumphant energy.

The director loses her touch just once or twice, when it feels unclear whether a scene is ending in a “clap now” tableau or not. A little tightening will easily sort it out.

Crowe makes a lively and amusing Vixen with a high, clear voice. Bell, dressed as a 1960s California hippie, swaggers and blusters beautifully as the Fox. The smaller parts, including several children’s roles, are all performed well. A great start to the Glyndebourne Festival season. Rating: ***1/2.

Humpty Dumpties

The casting directors of “The Sunshine Boys” deserve a gong for pairing homunculus-sized Danny DeVito and the enormously rotund Richard Griffiths on the stage of the Savoy Theatre. As soon as they appear together, it looks funny. Unfortunately, that’s where the comedy ends.

Neil Simon’s 1972 play is about a couple of cantankerous old vaudevillians who spent 43 years as a double act. Eleven years on, they have a chance to team up again for a television special. Old wounds are opened. They bicker.

“As a comic, no one could touch him. As a human being, no one wanted to touch him,” says DeVito’s character.

As with so much of Simon’s writing, plot and depth are sacrificed to a relentless drip-drip-drip of watery one-liners.

DeVito times them superbly, and Griffiths is no slouch either (even if his American accent wobbles). Thea Sharrock’s direction is straightforward, and Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a cramped, shabby New York apartment, looks fine. It just doesn’t add up to a barrel of laughs. Rating: **.

Horrifying Fun

There’s more fun at a frenetic revival of Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” (1969), a scabrous and troubling farce.

During a job interview, the lecherous psychiatrist Dr. Prentice tries to get his prospective secretary Geraldine Barclay to remove all her clothes. Prentice’s alcoholic wife, who is being blackmailed by a lusty hotel bellboy, walks in on them.

A switchback of lies, mistaken identities, gender swapping and mind-boggling revelations is set in motion.

Orton’s genius was to be able to take the elements of classic farce, zhoosh them up in a cocktail shaker, and invest them with truly disturbing violence.

When Prentice hits his wife in the face, it’s a sickening moment in the whirlwind of banging doors and improbable excuses. The final revelations are as horrifying as they are funny.

There’s an old saying that farce is Greek tragedy with gags. It feels truer here than usual.

The performances are highly choreographed in an exaggerated style, and work beautifully. Tim McInnerny and Samantha Bond spar well as the Prentices, and Omid Djalili does a terrific turn as an increasingly loopy psychiatric inspector.

There’s a lull in Act 2, when not even Sean Foley’s precise, well-timed direction can keep the threads of artifice from feeling over-strained. Never mind. There’s a great payoff at the climax to compensate. Rating: ***.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” is in repertoire at Glyndebourne. Information: or +44-1273-813813.

“The Sunshine Boys” is at the Savoy Theatre. Information: or +44-844-871-7687.

“What the Butler Saw” is at the Vaudeville Theatre. Information: or +44-844-412-4663.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

Muse highlights include: Farah Nayeri on film from Cannes, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris arts, Frederik Balfour on Hong Kong auctions and Greg Evans on U.S. television.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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