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Dog Show

James Yeatman, Zac Gvirtzman, Lisa Kerr, Hamish Macdougall, Ntonga Mwanza, Harriet Webb, Al Smith and Lauren Mooney
Kandinsky
New Diorama Theatre

Lisa Kerr as Daisy and Hamish Macdougall as Keith Credit: Richard Davenport

Man’s best friend? Maybe, but is it reciprocal? Sadly not always, as with the mysterious hooded figure in Dog Show, suggested by an uncaught character director James Yeatman heard of when he was living in Hong Kong. For more than twenty years, this person had been killing dogs by laying poisoned food where people walked their pets.

Imagine such a killer in one of London’s parks, a city that is home to more than 200,000 dogs. That’s just one strand of Kandinsky’s play, written and devised by its four actors, writer Al Smith, musician Zac, producer Lauren Mooney and director Yeatman.

That dark presence is in the background as Dog Show looks at our relationship with our dogs. It starts off in a dog training class; Harriet Webb plays Pamela: she seems a bit of a bully but is her condescendingly confident manner just the way she masks her own insecurities? Lisa Kerr is Greer, the well-taught dog who so beautifully obeys her.

When Pamela has done her stuff, she shape-shifts. Breathing heavily into a microphone, she becomes guide dog Maloney sharing the instructions she is receiving from the blind man she is leading and a chain of consciousness awareness of everything around him, reacting to the noisy passage of traffic and registering almost entirely through smell: food, fag-end, pee (human). Suddenly it is a dog’s world.

The blind man is Keith, determinedly independent, played by Hamish Macdougall with a belligerent edge when approached by do-gooders. He becomes Great Dane Duke, tugging along his owner Michael, who is heartbroken when his dog becomes the poisoner’s victim. Ntonga Mwanza is Michael and also Buttons, the Pug pet of Daisy (Lisa Kerr), a lively care assistant. Wide-eyed face, he is perhaps the most endearing of the canines, though they are all unmistakably doggy.

All the humans are clearly characterised: blind Keith, for instance, becoming foul-mouthed and dysfunctional when a new carer moves the tin opener and he can’t open Maloney’s dog food. Daisy wrong-footed at the prices of the pedigree pup she’s seeking after her dog is poisoned. Macdougall is the posh breeder and they all play other people and other dogs passed in the park, sniffingly inspected, bosses and nurses like the one at the hospital where Keith’s stroke-stricken wife lies unable to speak while he is unable to see her.

There are no furry costumes or going around on all fours. It is entirely their behaviour that turns these humans into dogs. The spaniel may not be able to droop its ears but it likes its tummy tickled. Eyes and tongues, persistent paws, a yap (but rarely) all play their part but it's the keen expectancy, the clear reaction that makes these actors canine and so convincing, especially in moments like when two dogs are after the same ball.

There is a bare stage except for a hat stand that sprouts chairs, some fluorescent light tubes and a rotary fan. The actors manipulate them to suggest environment, produce props for each other when they are needed. Timing is delicate and physicality integrated; you hardly see where the poisoner comes from. A costume alteration becomes part of the choreography and composer Zac Gvirtzman discreetly provides sound support and atmospheric instrumentals from one side of the stage.

Dog Show touches on many aspects of the human-dog relationship. However, though it is just as much about humans as about dogs, it is the actors’ performances in their dog characters that make it most theatrically alive.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton