It’s almost eight years since the riots that spread across London, sparked by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham. Arinzé Kene’s good dog tells the story of that summer, and – more importantly – of the years of building tension and disillusionment that preceded it. It does this through the monologue of an unnamed boy, played by Kwaku Mills, whose wide-eyed idealism gradually gives way to cynicism and violence as he realises being good isn’t necessarily enough to stop bad things happening. First seen in 2017 and now revived for a fresh UK tour, directed once again by Natalie Ibu, good dog is a gripping and superbly acted piece of theatre.
The boy lives in a multicultural inner city community in London, and through his account we get to know all the familiar faces – this may be a solo show but it tells a multitude of stories. There’s Gandhi, the local shopkeeper, who won’t challenge the local “smoking boys” and “what what girls” who steal from him for fear of losing customers; Mrs Blackwood, the only person who doesn’t realise her husband’s cheating on her with their neighbour; Trevor Senior, who just wants to teach his son Trevor Junior how to play cricket in peace. And then there’s the boy – who, despite an absent dad, neglectful mum and merciless bullying at school, sincerely believes that if he’s good and never hits back, it’ll all pay off eventually.
The first thing to say is that Kwaku Mills is outstandingly good. From the moment he steps on stage and starts telling the story of Trevor Senior and the duppy, until the closing moments of the two and a half hour performance, he has our attention. His use of dialect always feels completely authentic, while remaining effortlessly accessible to audiences of any background; we may not know, for instance, what a duppy is, but the monologue is so well written that we can quickly understand without Boy needing to interrupt himself and explain.
Boy also very quickly earns our affection – the thirteen-year-old is enthusiastic, optimistic and funny (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not), and it’s hard to see him lose, little by little, the innocence and conviction that make him such an endearing character. By Act 2 he’s aged a couple of years, and though we can still recognise the boy we’ve come to know and care about, it’s clear that something’s changed – and given everything that happens in Act 2, that’s hardly surprising.
good dog is undeniably a masterpiece of personal storytelling, but there’s a bigger picture here too. Amelia Jane Hankin’s looming tower block set is the constant backdrop to Boy’s story, lit from within by a pulsing light (design by Zoe Spurr) that eventually becomes a roaring inferno as simmering anger explodes into violence. Act 1 paints a picture of a community made up of good people, living their lives the best way they know how. And yet somehow they always lose, so is it any wonder that at some point they decide to fight back?
The 2011 riots may be long over, but you only have to turn on the news to understand that the issues that lay at the heart of them are as alive and urgent as they’ve ever been. Kene’s play is a captivating piece of theatre that both entertains and appals on its way to an explosive climax. It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when whole communities are written off and ignored – but it’s also a celebration of those communities and everything that makes them such a unique and necessary part of British culture. Now more than ever, it’s a must-see.