Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show
Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks
Imitating The Dog and Leeds Playhouse
The Lowry, Salford
"So, have you missed live theatre?" ad libs Matt Prendergast when a technical problem prompts a delay in the show. Well, yes, thanks for asking—really glad you’re back.
Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show, is, not, as the title suggests, a straightforward horror story but rather a cautionary tale in the manner of Bill Gaines’s gory but wonderful EC comics. The comics are not the only influence apparent in Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’s short but ambitious play. Murders are committed in the over-the-top violent style of Punch and Judy and there are even Biblical themes of free will and the fall of Lucifer.
Yet the strongest influence is the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock. Laura Hopkins’s designs reflect the cut and paste graphics of the era and Bill Grundy’s notorious interview with the Sex Pistols is referenced in the projected stage backdrop. The demonic narrators (Laura Atherton, Keicha Greenidge and Matt Prendergast) behave in an aggressive, confrontational manner moving towards cackling malevolence. This rough and ready approach suits the carnival atmosphere of the show perfectly. Carnivals have a shabby, shady reputation and the stage on which the story of municipal corruption is performed looks very like a flatbed lorry as if the cast might need to make a quick getaway.
Three corrupt officials—the mayor, a headteacher and the chief constable—plan to turn their entire town into a gambling den named "The Devil’s Playground". Under the direction of the mysterious Gorgon, the trio plot to remove, with extreme prejudice, the only obstacle to their scheme. But Gorgon might have his own plans for the trio.
The techniques used will be familiar to anyone who has attended past productions by Imitating The Dog. Simon Wainwright’s video designs bring a widescreen cinema quality allowing the cast to stride along corridors or through wind and rain and creating also suitably apocalyptic explosions. Visuals of Matthew Tully’s dolls are projected onto a screen where, life-size, they interact with the actors. Grotesque masks are used by the cast to become a range of characters.
The itinerant lifestyle and gleefully dark and anarchic attitude of carnivals is often regarded as challenging and subverting the norms of conventional society. At present, however, the rules around social and familial gatherings are so chaotic and confusing, the rebellious approach of the carnival seems as much a reflection of, as a challenge to, the norm. Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show is, therefore, very much a show for our bizarre times—the facial features and messy hairstyle used on the mask for the corrupt mayor have a striking similarity to our own highly competent and deeply respected Prime Minister.
The ongoing argument between central and local government about the safety or otherwise of going out in the Manchester area may mean audiences need little prompting to get in a suitably nervous mood for a spooky story. Imitating The Dog and The Lowry are, however, taking every precaution to safeguard patrons: organising us into socially distanced places, offering hand sanitiser, insisting on the wearing of masks and, of course, staging the show in the open air. Besides, it is worth attending the show purely for the warm welcome from The Lowry staff, who are clearly delighted to be back at work.
The brevity of Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show limits its effectiveness as a play—it is more a short story than full-length novel. One assumes, however, the intention is not simply to entertain but to prove it is possible, in these difficult times, to stage live theatre—an objective which is certainly fulfilled. Besides, it is a tasty little play which leaves you hungry for more.
Reviewer: David Cunningham