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… 😉

Review: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre

Proud Haddock’s production of The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus opens in Egypt in 1907, where two archaeologists and a team of local men are sifting through scraps of ancient papyrus. It’s an appropriate introduction to Tony Harrison’s 1988 play, which has itself been unearthed and given new life nearly 30 years after its last London performance.

Grenfell and Hunt (Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves) are academics searching for a lost satyr play by Sophocles. Dismayed at their lack of success – all they seem to find is endless petitions for help from the dispossessed – Grenfell grows increasingly obsessive, and Hunt starts to worry about him… with good reason, as it turns out. Before we quite know what’s happening, Grenfell’s been possessed by the god Apollo, while Hunt’s transformed into Silenus, and (with a bit of audience participation) dramatically released his band of dancing satyrs.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

From here, the story takes us to ancient Greece and into the lost play, Ichneutae, where Apollo charges the satyrs with tracking down his lost cattle, only for them to discover instead something far more valuable to him. And finally, we’re whisked off to London’s South Bank in 2016, where the effects of that discovery are still being felt – but not necessarily in a good way.

Believe it or not, all of this happens in 75 minutes. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a whirlwind of a production that’s barely contained by the Finborough’s tiny stage, and allows very little time to process what’s going on – yet still somehow manages to remain accessible to those of us without a degree in ancient Greek literature. Don’t get me wrong, the story is completely bonkers, and there are certainly a good few moments where we’re left wondering what on earth just happened (the sudden appearance of Hermes the man-baby would be a good example). But it all comes together in the end, with a powerful message not only about the dichotomy between high and low art, but more broadly about the divide between rich and poor, and a direct appeal to the audience which challenges us to examine our own attitudes. (That said, the perfectionist in me would have welcomed a chance to circle back to the beginning of the story, if only to find out what happened to Grenfell and Hunt.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves lead the cast with strong performances, handling with ease Harrison’s rhyming verse. Purbeck particularly excels during a wild-eyed transformation from Grenfell to Apollo, his head snapping back and forth as the two personas war against each other. Glaves’ key moment comes late in the play, but is worth waiting for; as Silenus, he recounts movingly the flaying of his brother satyr Marsyas, who was punished by Apollo for having the temerity to become an accomplished flute player. But perhaps most memorable – for reasons that become obvious (costume designer Vari Gardner, take a bow) – are the satyrs, played by Dylan Mason, James Rigby, Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dannie Pye and Adam Small. Energetic and irreverent, they stomp, dance and joke their way through the middle section of the play… yet this story is not destined to end happily, and their 21st century incarnations channel their energy in much darker ways.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a decidedly odd play, entertaining and tragic in equal measure. Jimmy Walters’ production could at times move a little more slowly, and could certainly benefit from a slightly bigger stage – but given the nature of the play and its message, a small theatre, in which audience and artists are within touching distance, feels like an appropriate setting for the rediscovery of this little-known work.


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… 😉