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Mad Dogs and an Englishman

Tim Elgood
Derby LIVE
Guildhall Theatre, Derby

Laura Freeman (Flash), Steven Blakeley (Harry) and Sean O'Callaghan (Paddy) in The Dog House Credit: Robert Day
The cast of The Dog House

Derby LIVE has been concentrating on non-theatre events since its agreement to look after the artistic programme at Derby Theatre was brought to an amicable conclusion. Now the city council’s entertainments arm is staging its first in-house production since 2012 and has recruited a number of personalities who have been involved with the organisation on several occasions.

Creative producer Pete Meakin has been working with writer Tim Elgood for the past 20 years. Meakin is now directing two of Elgood’s one-act comedies. The Dog House and Bare Words are collectively billed as Mad Dogs and an Englishman.

Elgood writes with specific actors in mind. He was thinking of former Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre actor Steven Blakeley and Sean O’Callaghan, who appeared with Blakeley in Elgood’s comedy Mother Came Too in 2010, when he penned The Dog House.

Elgood and his wife have owned three rescue dogs and think they have given them a good life. The Dog House examines that assumption from the view of three canine inhabitants of an animal welfare centre.

Blakeley plays Harry, a well-behaved grown-up who believes the cuter he acts the more likely someone is to give him a new home.

O’Callaghan is Paddy, a long-term resident of the centre who cunningly engineered his departure from his previous home after convincing the owners he was not housetrained.

They are joined by Laura Freeman—who has also worked in the past with Blakeley—as Flash, a rebellious teenager whose feistiness results from seeing her younger brother subjected to a horrible ordeal.

The trio are superb together, all confident in their own roles and working together to bring out the comedy and depth in Elgood’s writing.

Blakeley uses a comprehensive range of facial expressions and his finest scene is when he preens himself in the hope of attracting a new owner during an open day at the centre.

O’Callaghan plays the wily Paddy with laid-back style and effortlessness while Freeman impresses as the agitated, uneasy youngster who is unable to settle in the rescue home.

Andy Miller’s clean, effective set with bars defining the dogs’ kennel is transformed by the additional of large Scrabble tiles for Bare Words.

This two-hander features Blakeley as a writer struggling to come up with his next play while Freeman is his muse who is also his fiercest critic.

Blakeley portrays the troubled playwright with the same conviction he demonstrated as a dog. He often talks to the audience as he expresses his self-doubt and exasperation at not being able to find the right words.

Here Freeman is totally different, a confident, critical influence who berates the writer for his “shallow characters, improbable dialogue and tedious plot”.

However, Bare Words appears clever rather than funny. Despite that, it is well acted and at half an hour does not drag.

There is quite a contrast between the two plays, both of which Meakin directs with skill and panache. They make an absorbing evening which may not appeal to everyone—but on this showing it is a pity that there are not more opportunities for the creative staff at Derby LIVE to demonstrate their abilities.

Reviewer: Steve Orme