Sunday, 11 March 2018

REVIEW: The Dog Beneath the Skin at the Jermyn Street Theatre

WH Auden is best known as a poet writing throughout the 1930's to 1960's with strong left wing views. Christopher Isherwood is best known as the writer of the book that became the hit musical Cabaret set against the background of Nazi Germany. Proud Haddock have unearthed a play they wrote together in 1935, The Dog beneath the skin and revived it at the tiny 70 seats Jermyn Street Theatre as part of their Scandal season describing it as a rediscovered classic. 

It tells the story of Alan Norman, selected by the village of Pressan Ambo, to search for the missing heir Sir Francis Crewe; the previous nine adventurers having never returned. His quest is different as he is accompanied by a whisky drinking dog called George, played by Cressida Bonas in what looks like a gas mask. An Ambo is a pulpit and the writers use the pretext to preach their thoughts on what was happening in Europe under the growing influence of Hitler and Mussolini.

It is a bizarre mad quest into Europe of the thirties presented as a series of weird musical hall sketches as they meet the King of Ostnia ,a South American gangster, prostitutes, the madmen of Westland, experimental scientists, art critics and showgirls. Each scene lampoons society leaders and takes societal norms to extreme caricatures.

The message throughout seems clear that the general populace cannot trust its leaders in politics, religion, science and the arts who mislead them supported by a corrupt media who protect their interests. In a world of Trump, Putin and Kim Jong Un, the concerns expressed back in 1935 seen as real as ever.

The ensemble cast of eight under the direction of Jimmy Walters deliver each episode with energy, precision and fun creating over fifty diverse characters. Best amongst a strong cast is Edward Digby Jones who has a great stage presence, engages the audience brilliantly and gets many of the best laughs as the vicar of Pressan Ambo, King of Ostnia and the gangster as well as an outrageous showgirl. 

He is matched by Eva Feiler as his curate and an art expert who plays the piano throughout and narrates and comments on the action between scenes. Alan Norman is played by Pete Ashmore as a bemused slightly dim innocent abroad who without the dog's help would never have returned home.

The whole adventure is set in what appears to be the backstage in a Victorian music hall with just a few pieces of scenery from that period and chairs doubling as a railway carriage and beds. It does not quite work and although the scene changes are choreographed with care ,the use of the stage looking out in the Victorian auditorium feels odd at times. It would have made more sense viewing the whole production through the proscenium arch of a music hall.

The writing is also uneven, usually lilting verse, sometimes too heavy in message, sometimes
frivolous and silly to get a laugh. It feels like the two authors differing styles have not quite knitted together and indeed they never quite settled the ending. In this version our heroes go off to the other side rejecting the direction Pressan Ambo is being taken.

This is a satirical piece but just like Gilbert and Sullivan some of the references have been lost with time but the central anti establishment message and of the media manipulating news so that if they disregard an event, then the event did not happen is a worrying one and at times today seem all too real.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★
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