Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Lucy Curtis, It Is So Ordered

Changing Face is a multi-national theatre company based in Brixton and Bristol, whose work responds to the changing face of communities worldwide. Their latest production, Conor Carroll’s It Is So Ordered, opens at the Pleasance next month and turns the spotlight on racial injustice in the USA.

It Is So Ordered is set during the outbreak of wrongful and racially motivated imprisonments in 1960s America,” says director and Changing Face co-founder Lucy Curtis. “The play charts the tragic story of two imprisoned African American men linked by a lie, exploring the power of forgiveness in an unforgiving world. Inspired by true events, it explores the injustices caused, of which the repercussions are still being felt to this day. The play concerns itself with redemption for the sins of the past which can feel unforgivable and will take an enormous feat of empathy to conquer.”

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The play’s based on the story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man from Ohio who was convicted of a crime he never committed. “He was released 39 years later in 2014,” explains Lucy. “I had no idea about his story and I was angry that I had no awareness of it. I want the audience to leave aware, awake and alive to the injustices that are happening around them. I want them to go away feeling energised to look deeper into the issues displayed and to actively become involved in the political discourse it presents. I want them to care that these events have been happening for over half a century, and I want them to address that our ignorance to it is a problem.

“We’re living in a very uncertain time: we’re seeing the re-emergence of 20th century mentalities that, it turns out, were never completely left behind. I want the audience to interrogate: how far must we go before our justice systems possess a ‘colour blind’ approach to the law. Britain often claims to possess the finest judiciary system in the world. This just isn’t true – the justice we find both here and in America are neither colour blind nor equal.”

The play’s been developed in collaboration with the Old Vic New Voices and Park Theatre: “The Old Vic New Voices supported us at a pivotal moment in this piece’s development where we were trying to turn a 20-minute short play into a full length one,” explains Lucy. “They gave us time and resources to be able to test out our script through a research and development phase. They continue to support the work by giving us free access to rehearsal space and mentorship.

“The script was then selected as part of the Park’s Script Accelerator 2016 programme. We spent four weeks at the Park developing the play with weekly meetings with artistic staff. Being able to bounce ideas off other creatives whilst working consistently within a building that supports you and is interested in the story you are trying to tell was endlessly inspiring. We were able to test out our script at Park Theatre in November – the feedback we received was instrumental in carrying this play forward.”

The cast includes Simon Mokhele, who’s been working alongside It Is So Ordered for nearly a year, and newcomer Faaiz Mbelizi. “Simon (Johnny) trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, graduating in 2014, and his input has been fundamental in the shaping of the characters, storytelling and form. To still have him championing this story and this piece is a blessing and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in April. Faaiz (Bobby) graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2016 and kickstarted his professional acting career at the Belgrade Theatre. We’re super excited to start rehearsing with him; we start at the Old Vic Workrooms in just under two weeks and we can’t wait to get stuck in.”

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Tales of injustice like Ricky Jackson’s are far from a thing of the past, and in many cases are still going on today. “We want to focus on the stories of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes who are still in prison today, as well as the number of documented cases where people have been executed for crimes they never committed,” says Lucy. “Suicide rates are at an all-time high in our prisons and the fact that innocent men and women are serving their entire adult life in a cage is appalling.

“There’s definitely a growing shift in our collective attention to stories of injustice and wanting better in our world. The narratives presented in Netflix shows such as Making a Murderer and 13th are informing us of how historically and consistently, the institutions put in place to protect and serve us are in fact failing to do so. Since the late 60s and into the present day, the prison system in America has been used as a commodity to instil slave labour. Prisons are money making schemes for big businesses.

It Is So Ordered is a theatre piece which definitely actions itself in a similar vein to those shows, and theatre should be doing a lot more to represent these stories on its stages. We need to see the worst in order to want the better and the first step is getting people to hear these stories.”

It Is So Ordered is at the Pleasance from 5th-16th April.

Review: To She Or Not To She at Lyric Hammersmith

About ten months ago, I was at a scratch night at Morley College, where I watched the first fifteen minutes of a very funny one-woman show about a teenage girl who wants to be Hamlet in her school play, but is devastated to see the role going to an inferior actor – who just happens to be a boy.

Five months later, I was back at Morley to review the full show before it went up to Edinburgh, and was surprised by the direction it had taken. Instead of a riotous comedy about a woman playing Shakespeare’s men, the piece had developed into an honest and brave (but still funny) account of the difficulties faced by female actors in the theatre industry through one woman’s personal experience.

Last night, Joue le Genre‘s To She Or Not To She was back in London, playing to a sell-out crowd as part of Evolution at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I was keen to see how it had developed both during the Edinburgh run and since, under its new director Katharina Reinthaller.

To She Or Not To She, Joue le Genre

To She Or Not To She is the story of actor Emma Bentley, who plays various versions of herself at ages 14, 19, 23 and 24, as well as a host of other colourful characters from her past. Emma’s a natural comedian, and has no problem with joining the audience in laughing at herself – although even she seemed taken aback last night at how popular some of her one-liners were. Much of these are in-jokes for either the theatre crowd or the women in the audience, but none are so specialist that they can’t be appreciated by anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories.

Emma’s confident, natural performance and openness about her own shortcomings and disappointments – as an actor and a woman – mean that by the time we arrive at the serious heart of the show, the audience is fully invested and willing to listen, not just to Emma’s story but also to the other female actors who’ve supplied verbatim accounts of their experiences in the industry, for a scene that marks the show’s turning point from pure comedy to something much darker.

Under its new director, To She Or Not To She has been reworked – so gone is the record player that used to open the show, and instead we see Emma indulging in a bit of secret Shakespeare fangirling whilst mopping floors at the coffee shop where she works to pay the bills. This, it turns out, is the present day, and acts as a sobering backdrop to the younger Emma’s optimism as she chats excitedly to the audience about her future prospects.

It’s a privilege to have seen To She Or Not To She develop from its very early days into the show it is now – one that’s really fun to watch, but also has a clear and powerful political message. At a time when equality in acting is a hotly debated issue, it’s also very timely, and while Emma herself recognises that her own disappointments may not be the most shocking or serious, they nonetheless pave the way for an important discussion that needs to take place.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉