The Duchess (of Malfi) (Lyceum: 17 May -18 June ’19)

Adam Best as Bosola & Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A swingeing attack against inequality and injustice … with gouts of blood”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Observe the bold italics: ‘The Duchess (of Malfi)’ after John Webster. Zinnie Harris’s compelling adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy has all its drive and grip, most of its heritage schlock, and some – but not much – of its superb, excoriating language. Never mind, Harris’s script is smart and disturbing in its own cause. Webster may turn in his grave but it would be a satisfied, pleasurable shift rather than a squirm of revulsion.  The great roles are there, just beneath the modern skin: the blameless Duchess; the depraved Cardinal; Bosola, the loyal creature  – all in the service of raging truths.

 

Yes, twin babies are gently rocked in their parents’ arms but the lullaby is ‘a slightly fucked-up version’ and love is defenceless. Back in Webster’s script of 1614 Bosola tells the Cardinal that

‘When thou kill’d’st thy sister,
Thou took’st from Justice her most equal balance,
And left her naught but her sword’.

Harris’ plot and Harris’ direction do the same, losing moderation, going on a swingeing attack against inequality and injustice. The bad comes first and it’s really bad. The Duchess, Giovanna, remarrries. Her two brothers, the Cardinal – utterly depraved – and Ferdinand – psychopath – find out and destroy her as ‘soiled goods’. Antonio, her husband, would avenge her but merciless killing is not for him. That’s more in Bosola’s line. However, watch the brooding Bosola, listen to him, for it’s a rewarding exercise and when the good comes out he’s your man. It is an extraordinary ‘turn’, beyond even Webster’s philosophical villain, and very well done by Adam Best.

 

If Bosola surprises, the Duchess inspires. She opens the play alone, centre stage, in front of a microphone and her audience. Her own story closes in around an excellent performance by Kirsty Stuart. Amused but all too aware of her brothers’ appalling misogyny, she is mischievous and loving with Antonio, craving and then burping  apricots during her pregnancy, and heroic – immortal – at her end. The two other female parts, Cariola (Fletcher Mathers), Julia (Leah Walker) suffer, fall – and rise – with her.

 

George Costigan as the Cardinal & Angus Miller as Ferdinand

 

The ghastly Cardinal is played by George Costigan, whose command of his lines is probably only matched by the respect he has for them. It would be a virtuoso performance except that to assign ‘virtue’ of any description to this demon would be too much. At least Angus Miller as the sick and puerile Ferdinand has howling lunacy on his side.

 

While she lives the Duchess has precious little freedom. If her brothers cannot control her, they can certainly contain her. Tom Piper’s set is a high undressed space, bleached stone white, with a gangway across its width. Sliding grillwork enforces the impression of prison and the basement bathroom provides a convenient torture chamber where standing mikes are used to address the prisoner. High voltage jolts frazzle the nerves throughout. Two songs offset the fear but still seemed out of place; worse, for me, was some foot stomping and an immediate association with the comic gospel strains of  ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, which was unfortunate.

 

There are inevitable moments of jarring tone and effect, when modern idiom and thought collide with the Jacobean. “I’d kill the bastard who did this to you, the fiends” could be left unsaid but I’m all for the gouts of blood, the powerful re-writing, and the electric challenge of the closing caption.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 May)

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Interview: Shine (Traverse 16 – 18 May ’19)

“The show has been like therapy to me…”

WHAT: “Kema’s 3 years old when his family move from Zambia to Newcastle.

It’s a story of new surroundings, about making a new life and then watching that life fall apart. A story about self-belief, trusting your head, your heart and always chasing your dreams.

Actor, rapper, singer, rising star and Live Theatre Associate Artist Kema Sikazwe (I, Daniel Blake), also known as Kema Kay, makes his powerful stage debut mixing a bittersweet coming-of-age story with an electrifying live soundtrack and heartfelt words.”

WHO: Kema Sikazwe, writer & performer

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Shine’?

The title of the show, Shine, is named after my name which means ‘one who shines’ in one of the Zambian languages. I hope people join me on this journey of finding out who we are, accepting who we are, and come away inspired to go find their shine! It’s never too late.

This is your life story. How have the people in your life and audiences reacted to its telling?

There are definitely find some parts in the show they can relate but you can never really judge how an audience will respond. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and I know people will want to know. The show has been like therapy to me and I just want the audience to keep fighting the good fight of life and find their shine!

What’s the one thing about Zambia that everyone should know?

It’s a beautiful country!

The Newcastle and Gateshead skylines are famous for their bridges. Which is your favourite?

The Millennium Bridge. I love when it lights up!

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I underestimated how emotional it would be. It’s been a real mixture of emotions. In rehearsals, I broke down a few times as I realised how much bottled emotion I’ve had in over the years. Also, I wrongly judged theatre in the beginning, but once I got a taste of it, I was hooked from then onwards. I’ve been a sponge since starting but I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time.

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Interview: The Lark (Bellfield, Portobello 4 – 8 June ’19)

“Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.”

WHAT: “Joan of Arc. Saint, saviour or someone who heard voices?

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s longest wars, a 17-year-old peasant girl led an army of men into battle and carved a victory that defined France. She claimed God told her to do it; the church says she’s a witch and should be burnt alive.

Jean Anouilh’s classic play tells the tale of how Joan convinced the church, the state – and her dad – to let her tackle an apparently impossible feat. And then plays witness at her trial: a nineteen-year-old uneducated woman held to account for her successes by the world’s most educated men.”

WHO: Claire Wood, Director

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Lark’?

I’ve always loved the story of Joan of Arc. I was brought up Catholic so feel as if I’ve always known the story. I didn’t realise how much of a cult comes with her story. Look up Joan of Arc tattoos on Pinterest – it’s incredible. I discovered the plays as an adult. At first I was interested in the story of a young peasant woman who claimed God was talking to her – much to the outrage of all the educated men in the church who assumed that only they had a direct line to the Lord’s intentions. Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.

One of the characters in the play, Bishop Cauchon, who has his own darkly sinister agenda, says “when a man can keep his dignity and purpose in that loneliness, in that silence of a vanished God, that is when he is truly great.” Joan’s story is relevant to activists and political prisoners, religious or not, across the world.

The real Joan lived 600 years ago but looking at people like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, the story also feels incredibly current. They’re both about the same age as Joan was, both doing incredible things in their field. This is a slice of history that has all sorts of messages about the courage and determination needed to hold your ground in the face of fierce opposition.

Do you see Joan as a revolutionary prime mover, fighting for the timeless cause; or was she simply a pawn on the familiar medieval chessboard promoting the self-interest of the real players?

She was both. Isn’t Greta Thunberg? Joan was fighting to get France out of the control of the English. Getting the rightful king crowned was a significant step towards that. At the same time – to my modern day mind! – she was fighting for the right, as a woman, to do the things she wanted to do. To wear what she wanted to – which wasn’t a skirt. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To make a difference. Rather than festering away in skirts in her sleepy little French village.

Anouilh (and translator Gill Taylor ) do a brilliant job of condensing the history but if you look at what actually happened, it looks as if Joan’s confidence did finally outstrip her ambition. She started losing battles, her soldiers started abandoning her. She first attempted to march on Paris to drive the English out of France’s capital city – without the king’s permission. And then it all started going wrong. The history doesn’t all fit in the play necessarily – or we’d be there for hours!

But back to your question, at the same time as she was trying to achieve all these things, the establishment were busy there using her for their own ends. And this comes through really neatly in the script. The king’s mother-in-law, Yolande, trying to persuade the king to see Joan as she might help give him some much-needed celebrity sparkle. The Church’s various representatives greeting her with suspicion and then conspiring to squash her when their godly status has been affirmed. The army taking pains to point out that she’s nothing but a puppet soldier – albeit a puppet who achieved more than they had in fifty years of fighting. Few of the characters in Anouilh’s play have any interest in her as a person and are interested only in what Joan can achieve for them.

What makes Gill Taylor’s new translation of the original special?

It’s easy to tell this story in a way that’s very black and white. She was certainly hearing god talking to her. The church thought she was lying and burnt her. It’s my bugbear with the Shaw version of the story. I love Anouilh’s script for acknowledging the convenience of this girl turning up at a time when the country was in a political mess and had lost its sense of self. Joan gave them an opportunity to rediscover that. Where Christopher Fry’s translation from the 1950’s feels very much like a script from the fifties, Gill Taylor’s script does a brilliant job of highlighting how current the story is. Joan’s dad swaggers about cursing his daughter for the shame she’ll bring on the family with her claims of hearing voices – then calls her a slut for sneaking about in the fields meeting someone he’s certain is an illicit boyfriend rather than the holy St Michael. Gill’s use of the sort of language we use now to diminish women – particularly topical now as gender equality is so high on the public agenda – make the story that happened six hundred years ago feel really current.

What will a band and choir add to the mix?

At one level, we’re performing the show in a church – so it seemed rude not to have a choir. The shape of what’s now the performing space was perfectly suited to locating the choir in the balcony above what used to be the altar, acting as real live angels on high!

Looking purely at the words in the script, and getting your head around all the protagonists in the story and their respective agendas, it’s easy to lose sight of contemporary resonances. The pop music we’ve woven into the story is there as a reminder that these are all issues we’re still tussling with today.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

What a big story this is! Unusually for that time in history, we’ve inherited an enormously thorough record of her story as the transcripts from her trial still survive. The trial lasted for over 80 days, Joan was on her feet for 12 hours a day being quizzed by a conveyor belt of clerics trying to catch her out, and throughout her interrogation, her story remained remarkably, impressively consistent. The one thing she refused to tell the court was what her angels looked like. She said that was between her and god.

I would love to have known at the start of rehearsals whether Joan was really hearing God talking to her. Really hearing some sort of voice in her head. Or capitalising on prophecies that had been doing the rounds for several centuries – which she would have heard from travellers visiting their house as she grew up – about a virgin girl who would come from the countryside to save France.

There’s a fabulous podcast by an Italian professor called Daniele Bolleli (‘History on Fire‘) that sees him reviewing all of the evidence and concluding that we can’t possibly tell whether she was mad, whether she’s was God’s spokesperson on earth or whether her talent was putting herself in the right place at the right time – and consequently, having a ball doing all the things that women weren’t allowed to do at the time. I’ve been boring the poor cast with the history – as most of the cast are based on known historical figures – since we started rehearsals.

So I wish I’d known the answer before we set off. But I suspect that the reason Joan’s story continues to fascinate us – is precisely because we don’t know that answer. And that’s what makes it such a brilliantly intriguing tale.

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White (St Cecilia’s Hall: 23 – 25 Mar.’19)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

“An incredibly important production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

Ah, racial politics. Anxiety-studded star of a few hundred conversations in coffee shops and pubs. It’s not that the constant deluge of injustice and anger in the world is depressing, it’s that it’s utterly depressing. Talking about it at all, let alone making comedy out of it, is like trying to tapdance your way through a minefield. One false slip and you’re either offending, rehashing or – perhaps worst of all – inadvertently punching down. And even if the comedy’s coming from a true, honest voice, the risk of creating “zeitgeist-y” work with little staying power looms ever present. Needless to say, the prospect of reviewing James Ijames’ “White” filled me with tentative hope and cautious apprehension: what I got in return was a wonderfully slanted commentary on modern sociopolitics, and enough comedy to keep me from realizing I was learning until it was far too late to stop.

Based on a true series of events surrounding the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, White tells the story of white artist Gus (Levi Mattey), who hires African American actress Vanessa (Anna Phillips) to present his work as her own, thus defaming an exhibition he was unable to qualify for. From this fairly simple starting point comes a flurry of emotionally charged and often absurd vignettes, examining the morality of racial curation and the various chasms which still exist at the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and identity.

First and foremost is the skill and timeliness of Ijames’ writing. White, in many ways, is a clever sleight of hand: the charged subject of race never leaves the stage, and yet seems to disappear beneath illusory hand waves of wit and stinging turnaround. Before you know it, you’re considering your own place in the debate, unconsciously picking apart what is satire and what isn’t. It’s the kind of theatre that is sorely needed in a climate that often seems paralysed in the face of despair.

That illusory quality is helped vastly by the show’s comedic direction: energy is the word of the day, and Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has packed it like gunpowder in an old rifle. Despite the open elliptical shape of  St Cecilia’s Hall, this production turned into bouts of verbal tennis, firing jokes so quickly across the room that distance seemed almost to help it. Of course, with a base of clear talent, it’s easily done: Mattey does an extremely laudable job at portraying a character who seems to flip between main antagonist and protagonist with every sentence, and yet still seem jaw-clenchingly consistent. In a similar vein, Phillips’ pulls triple-duty in a trio of roles (one a role within a role), rolling them out chameleon like: same silhouette, but vastly different vibes and patterns.

Supporting, we have Bradley Butler as Gus’ boyfriend Tanner, and Jess Butcher as museum curator Jane – though to relegate them to ensemble would do them injustice. The production would not be half as good without Butler’s caring, vibrant foil to Gus’ ironclad self-interest; and to say too much about Butcher’s portrayal of Jane would ruin some of the best scenes going – I can say only that themes of duality and hypocrisy are shiningly represented.

So, in such a shiny show, what didn’t go so smoothly? Unfortunately, a few stylistic kinks along the way are enough to turn what could be a smooth ride into something bumpier. Though the comedy seldom suffers from the almost breathless pace of the dialogue, there are times when certain lines, actions or even reactions could have done with more time to breathe. Especially in the third act, when things get heavier than ever, I found myself wanting to wait a little more in the questions before being whisked off to more one-liners.

And it’s that same breakneck paceyness which turns some of the show’s more surreal moments into missed opportunities. Without spoiling too much, part of the joy of this show is how left-field the ending is. But buoyed on its own wild momentum and without enough time to properly clock what was happening, genuinely interesting satire ended up feeling more muddled than biting. Without room for contrast, the energy seems to dip without ever getting lower, like getting used to the temperature of shower water.

And while scenes of sexual intimacy are intimate and very well done, the same cannot be said of the show’s flirtation with day-to-day romance. A very certain scene makes it abundantly clear that Mattey and Butler can play off each other wonderfully, but there seems to be an odd sterility to their interactions in the wider world of the play. The words are right but it lacks passion and force.

So what does this all add up to? And, maybe more importantly, how does this all play into a rating? Put shortly, this is an incredibly important production, marred by a few key flaws. Even if there are elements that could be improved on, White is a show that I wildly encourage everyone to see whilst it’s here – and to endeavour to seek out when it’s not.

The best theatre is the kind that leaves you fundamentally, and almost unwillingly, questioning yourself. By that metric, White certainly doesn’t disappoint.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 23 March)

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The Taming of the Shrew (Pleasance: 12-16 Mar.’19)

Michael Hajiantonis as Petruchio and Anna Swinton as Katherina.
Photo: Maia Walcott

“The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

As title challenges go, here’s a biggie: the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company presents The Taming of the Shrew. Rhymes with ‘Me Too’, helpfully, and for my money chimes with Rudimental and Ed Sheeran’s ‘Lay It All On Me’:

 

‘So if you’re hurting babe
Just let your heart be free’

 

Director, Tilly Botsford, would know her audience and on the night that audience was overwhelmingly female and young and had to be with Katherina (Kate) Minola all the way to Padua and back. Right at the start callow and earnest Lucentio is advised to ‘Study what you most affect’ and Botsford takes it from there. This is not the oddball ‘pleasant comedy’ that might ‘frame your mind to mirth and merriment’; no, it’s that other version, where bladdered Christopher Sly and the play-within-the play are cut and Petruchio lectures on misogyny.

 

The idea, of course, is that you walk out of the theatre with Katherina, a ‘foule and contending Rebel’ against Petruchio’s cruel dominion, and much is shaped to that end. An empty set consists of stepped black blocks and shiny scaffolding poles and costumes are kept plain and unremarkable: braces over white shirts and roomy trousers for gentlemen suitors and servants; with gowns for elegant swishing from Bianca (Jessica Butcher) and impudent flouncing from Katherina. The second half features harsher lighting. Nothing here of Italian colour, or period, despite the frequent mention of Pisa, Mantua, Venice. My favourite? Tranio’s sailmaker father is from Bergamo. It looked like a reaction to the vivid, beer stained, palette of last year’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Music, when it sounded, was a necessary relief and was, I think, under-played.

 

If it’s desolate at its close, this ‘Shrew’ still has its several entertaining scenes. Send for Biondello, bag carrier and fixer, and Callum Pope will have you smiling in a moment as he sorts out another fine mess. Thomas Noble’s beard and size give Hortensio unmissable stature and disguised (not!) as music teacher Licio he’s a nimble, comic treat. Will Peppercorn is the smitten Lucentio and also looks a prize chump as the elongated Cambio. Sally Macalister’s Grumio may give a knockabout performance but it’s well turned and always engaging. When Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller eventually turns up as Vincentio, humour gains a suave, ironic, dimension. Standout and habitual tailoring from Milan or DC? Tranio (Levi Mattey) is another more than capable servant-as-master and dear ‘old’ Gremio (Henry Coldstream) has the delightful, crestfallen, tribute to the ‘Great British Bake Off’, ‘My cake is dough’.

 

So, to risk the extended analogy, what does rise to the occasion?  There is no showstopper here; tonally, politically, the play is now a nightmare, and (therefore?) the technical challenge of how to sort its language is significant. ‘Coney catcher’, anyone? There is, notwithstanding, an appalling build to the fact that Katherine has had to marry a brute. Her father, Baptista (Michael Zwiauer), has no conscience. Petruchio is not, in this production, the roistering six-pack article. Michael Hajiantonis plays him straight, out for what he can get. He’s clever and vicious and unlovable, punto e basta! The command to ‘Kiss me, Kate,’ is no tender joke. Katherine is unnerved to destruction and Anna Swinton has that closing, stupefying, monologue to prove it.

 

For my part, I miss Christopher Sly, Madam wife at his side, and with him the opportunity to pretend that ‘The Shrew’ is a piece to enjoy and applaud while the sorry world slips by. All credit then to Tilly Botsford and an excellent cast for going at the real thing, at pace and with conviction.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 13 March)

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A Note of Explanation (Assembly Roxy: 1-3 Mar.’19)

Justin Skelton as Edwin
Photo: Grant Jamieson

“Lively and intelligent”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

 

It fits that A Note of Explanation, a work-in-progress preview, is part of the third Formation Festival at Assembly Roxy. This adaptation of a children’s story by Vita Sackville-West is coming together rather well.

Some Kind of Theatre could argue that their 45 minute production is in kit form: neatly engineered, quick to put up, and soon to be nicely habitable. It is, after all, based upon a very small book in the library of a doll’s house. Yes, a priceless doll’s house with imperial foundations, but director and script adaptor, Emily Ingram, has carefully and respectfully remodelled A Note of Explanation (1924) for our declining and more anxious, times. I believe Sackville-West would applaud, whilst Edwin Lutyens, architect, might question what on earth we mean by ‘modernizing’. However, Lutyens is tutored and charmed by a bright and perky fairy, so all is to the good.

Quercus, ageless sprite of the house, has ‘memoirs’ to enact from standing in the wings of story time. She is forever young and capable (and Scottish) and her tales of Cinderella, the Shellycoat, Bluebeard, and Jack and the Beanstalk, are cheery, cheeky, variants upon the originals. Nothing too scary here, only a silly goose. Cheery but helpful too, as each has an ecological edge; perhaps not as keen as the woodcutter’s axe but good and pronounced all the same. When Quercus accuses Lutyens of imprisoning her within the skeleton of her oak tree the royal architect is truly sorry. Fortunately there is one magic acorn left ….

Ably performed by a cast of three – Gillian Goupillot, as Quercus; Imogen Reiter; and Justin Skelton, as Edwin Lutyens – with support from puppets of tree(s), agile squirrels and a carriage, A Note of Explanation is a lively and intelligent children’s show in the making.  

 

(& by ‘n by, for grown-ups:

Lutyens: https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-edwin-lutyens/10029787.article

Robert Graves’ poem, The Stake, in ‘Poems: abridged for Dolls and Princes’, 1922, in the library of Queen Mary’s Doll House.  Haunted, but has an honest oak tree at its centre.)

 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 March)

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Good Dog (Traverse: 14-16 Feb.’19)

Image: tiata fahodzi compnay

“Noble intentions.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Stories of life, growth and perseverance in dour and desperate neighbourhoods are undoubtedly worth telling. The nooks and crannies of experiences otherwise overlooked by mainstream culture are often rich with opportunities for pathos, expression, and diversity, and as citizens we all ought to champion stories of the oppressed and disregarded. Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog (2017) is certainly one of these stories. It is not, unfortunately, a compelling or engaging piece of theatre, and for all its noble intentions, the flaws in design and execution are too great to overlook. 

The play is a one-hander, with a runtime of two and a half hours. In the Traverse Theatre’s staging, directed by Natalie Ibu, actor Kwaku Mills portrays Boy, the sole character onstage, who narrates this sprawling, multi-year tale as he grows from a young, bullied child to an older, disillusioned and distraught teen. The story focuses on a dreary street in Tottenham, north London, on which despondent drunks and anxious shop owners face off against violent youths and, from time to time, the long arm of the law. Boy observes these disparate characters with intrigued attention and with the help of various voiceovers his narration layers the street with detail. The twists and turns of Kene’s script cover myriad subjects of life in this place and in his time, from South Asian immigrants trying to live up to their forebears’ expectations, to local infidelity, to racially problematic beauty standards, to concepts of nonviolence and protest, to undiagnosed dyslexia in impoverished youths, to 90s-centric toys and technology. The visuals are mostly dark, harsh shadows, enveloping Amelia Jane Hankin’s stark set: a blunt, grey cube in the center of the stage that resembles nothing so much as a kid’s (tower) block , but evokes the air of unpleasant, grungy decay that seems to envelop the whole place, at least in Boy’s eyes.

As Kene writes him, and Mills plays him, Boy is the center of all the world’s woes. He is mercilessly bullied in school. His mother both cannot afford to and seems uninterested in buying him the amenities he desperately craves. He seems to have no friends, no confidence, and in everyone’s eyes but his own, not much of a future. When the audience first meets Boy, he is an outspokenly optimistic kid, who believes that if he does good, ‘good’ will circle back to him later in life, and so he willingly undergoes derision and torment at the hands of local bullies, and others, because the more he forgives them, the better his life must eventually become. It does not take long, however, for the cruelties of life in this area to drag him so far into crippling misery and senseless pain that the fable of ‘good things coming to those who wait’ starts to ring completely hollow for Boy, and he realizes that letting the onslaught of life beat him down is never going to liberate him. It was only going to make things worse.

Midway through Good Dog, the audience may feel the same. Not only because the central metaphor of Kene’s script (a pair of dogs Boy observes clashing with each other over many years) is so obvious that its eventual payoff could have come 90 minutes earlier without any meaning lost, but mainly since this production is long, exhausting, and clunky. The sound design, by Helen Skiera, is cacophonous, grating, and more inane than affecting. The choreography of Boy’s solo performance, whose movement was directed by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, is disorienting (see Boy inexplicably leaping on and off the grey block while he walks around, which happens a lot). Mills’ accent, assisted by dialect coach Joel Trill, was noticeably strained and inconsistent, so that Boy sounded like he was warming-up in rehearsal, well way from the street and . Technical elements smack of artifice and there’s that uncanny smugness that much of contemporary British theatre seems to be slipping into.

It is remarkable that Mills was able to learn two and a half hours worth of lines and movement and perform them onstage on tour. One wishes, however, that the lines and movements were not as derivative and staid as these. The character seemed a strange fit for Mills’ talents and overall his performance was wasted. 

This is understandable, however, given Kene’s script, as that is the weakest element of the production. The tone and content of Good Dog are suffocatingly bleak, and lack both a sense of humour and an ounce of self-awareness. The phraseology Kene employs is labyrinthine and more irritating than anything else. A few thin jokes about naughties nostalgia got a snicker here and there, but the one genuinely hilarious and surprising moment came when a supporting character dies in such an improbable and horrifying manner that the show’s claims to authority or seriousness were dashed in full there and then. The death in itself is, of course, not intentionally funny, but brutally tragic, and yet as this piece is written, each scene seems hellbent on topping the last one with even more misery and suffering, and the showy depravity of this character’s final moments can do nothing but amuse.

Good Dog is coated in emotional squalor – a poor and baffling choice. Most of Kene’s narrative seems more interested in simply shocking an audience into stupefied submission with ‘Look how sad this can get’ antics than telling a story in a creative or engaging manner. It is telling, and rather depressing, that this script has been picked up and praised by critics. From my point of view – and, ok, I don’t know London’s meaner streets – it sounded very contrived and ends up with the most incompetent portrayal of a marginalized voice that I have seen. 

Which is a shame, because again, stories such as these frequently offer important perspectives, which others should listen to. But Good Dog ends up taking all the worst elements of ‘important’ dramas and shamelessly repeating their most self-serious moral mantras so that they come off as painfully obvious by the time Boy utters them. Of course, much of the subject matter the show deals with is hugely important but nearly all of it has been handled more intelligently and dynamically in narratives like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Strictly Arts Theatre’s outstanding Freeman (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). This last connection is especially relevant, as Kene chooses to include a riot sequence at the end of Good Dog so reminiscent of Lee’s Do the Right Thing climax that it seriously threatens to overstep the bounds of homage. 

Good Dog ends with an affirmation of accepting conflict and learning how best to fight back against the ‘bigger dogs’ of this world, even if it means being ‘put down’ in the process. The metaphor is overly wordy, unclear, and could do with some further consideration of just what it is trying to say. In that manner, it suits the larger production perfectly.

 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller 

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