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: Abducting Diana at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The media has long had the power to influence (some might say manipulate) our hearts and minds – but 2018 seems a particularly relevant moment for a revival of Dario Fo’s Abducting Diana, if only to prove that we’ve learnt nothing since the play was first written in 1986.

Media tycoon Diana Forbes McKaye is in the middle of a romantic liaison with a guy called Kevin when she’s kidnapped by three masked figures. However, she quickly turns the tables on her incompetent abductors and concocts a plan to cut out the middleman, make them all rich, and save her own skin. Quite straightforward, you might think. Except that Diana isn’t really Diana, Kevin isn’t really Kevin, there’s a man in the fridge with electrodes attached to his halluxes (that’s his big toes to you and me)… and where did that priest with the big nose come from?

As you might imagine, everything gets rather chaotic, rather quickly, with existing characters switching allegiances, and new ones popping up just when you thought the story couldn’t get any more complicated. Such is the air of general mayhem that the play almost forgets to make its point, and the characters have to return to the stage in the final moments to remind us why we’re all there – namely, corruption in high places and the exploitation of the working classes (in this scenario the hapless kidnappers, who seem to come out of every allegiance a bit worse off).

The company are enthusiastic and deliver some strong comedy performances, although in all but two cases, Fo’s characters don’t give them a huge amount of material to work with. As the only one of the three kidnappers we really get to know, Marius Clements has the thankless task of delivering most of his lines from inside a fridge, but rises to the occasion with spot-on comic timing. And Elena Clements plays Diana with cool sophistication and withering sarcasm, keeping her head when all around her are losing theirs – which has the unfortunate side effect of leaving us a bit confused over whether we’re supposed to cheer or boo her resourcefulness.

There are a few issues with Michael Ward’s production; not all the chaos feels entirely deliberate, and there are times – particularly when everyone’s on stage at once – when pace and volume could both come down a notch to ensure the audience is able to keep up with the plot’s more complex twists and turns. It’s also not very clear when the play is set; some of the biggest laughs are inspired by the kidnappers donning masks that feature the faces of Trump, Farage, Boris and the like – but while these topical references to the ruling elite make perfect sense in light of the play’s message, they feel confusingly out of place in a room where people still use typewriters, tape recorders and cheque books.

If you’re after sharp political commentary, Abducting Diana is possibly not the play you’re looking for. What it does offer, however, is high-energy, absurdist fun, performed by a committed cast who are obviously enjoying themselves immensely. Though at times a little unpolished, the play promises an hour of farcical mayhem, and on that score it certainly delivers.

Abducting Diana is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th March.

<em>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… ;)</em>

Interview: Random Acts Theatre, The Gog/Magog Project

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, and let me invite you into my askew little project…”

So begins The Gog/Magog Project, a dark comedy and “absurdist circus in a cage” from Random Acts Theatre, making their London debut at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Camden. More than a decade ago, Alexander Gog embarked on a radical experiment, caging himself in a theatre and delivering nightly performances from his cell for a period of one year as part of The Gog/Magog Project. Tragically, what was meant to be one year has become fifteen, with Gog moved from venue to venue, country to country, and made to survive on a diet of The Daily Telegraph and Banana-Flavoured ‘Moon Pies’.


“Broadly speaking the show is about the lengths a person will go to for the sake of artistic expression,” explains Kate Wilson, the show’s producer, “though it is also something of a critique of much contemporary commercial theatre. Alexander Gog acts as a voice against the mundane, run of the mill plays we are so often subject to. The Gog/Magog Project is a witty social commentary with culture at its heart.”

Gog’s situation has caught the attention of civil rights authorities, who claim that he’s being exploited for the financial gain of the pharmaceutical industry, sporting goods manufacturers, and government interests, and call for his immediate release despite his seemingly voluntary imprisonment. From behind the bars of his home, Gog – played by Random Acts co-founder Adam Brummitt – takes audiences with him in “a virtuoso performance which is as unnerving as it is hilarious”.

It all sounds a bit disturbing, particularly since the show is billed as “not for the faint hearted”. Should we be scared…? “No, I don’t think so,” says Kate. “The humour is somewhat dark, and sometimes a little uncomfortable, though even as Gog’s grip on reality begins to recede the play continues to draw laughter.”


Random Acts Theatre was founded in 2001 by Adam Brummitt and Khnemu Menu-Ra, when they were both drama undergraduates. Since then, the company has produced work consistently in St Louis, Chicago, and Exeter, where Kate came on board and helped produce the first two runs of The Gog/Magog Project. “As a company, Random Acts Theatre is dedicated to confronting issues from which people might otherwise shy away. Given this, the idea of a play which critiques mainstream theatre seemed an obvious choice. It is also an outstanding piece of writing in its own right, from a playwright whose work has not been produced in London before now.”

In fact The Gog/Magog Project is Random Acts’ first London show in their 15-year history. “We are extremely excited about the first of many shows in the capital, and the prospect of introducing audiences to a host of innovative and original productions.

The Gog/Magog Project is the perfect antidote to the sameness of many of the plays housed on the West End. Jason Lindner’s script, with Adam Brummitt’s additions, make for an entertaining and memorable evening, and one which will make viewers consider their role as an audience member.”

The Gog/Magog Project is at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 29th October.

Interview: Arrows & Traps, The Gospel According to Philip

“It’s a modern Life Of Brian, but with sharper knives,” explains Ross McGregor, Director of Arrows & Traps. Following their recent critically acclaimed production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio, the company are turning their attention to something very different for their next project.

“The Gospel According To Philip is the story of a young man, Philip, who decides to join the Apostles, a secret club of men, and follow a new messiah called Jesus. The story is told from his perspective as it charts Jesus’s final weeks on earth, running to his crucifixion.”

The production began with an approach from one of the writers, Richard Melchior. “I’ve known Richard for about 10 years; we worked together early in our careers doing regional tours in East Anglia. He brought this script to me just after his co-writer, Heidi Svoboda, tragically passed away, and asked me if there was any way to get this performed, as he was really proud of it. Initially I was just interested in it from a personal level, as I’ve always been a fan of Richard’s work, but when I started to actually read it, I was blown away. The satire is wonderfully drawn and subtle enough to make you think, and these iconic, almost mythical people are so recognisable but also feel completely fresh.

“You have the different character dynamics at work in terms of the apostles, and what Richard and Heidi have done, in a stroke of genius, is to transform Jesus and his disciples into a weary primary school teacher trope trying to control a group of unruly children, which gives it so much life. You have Peter as the teacher’s pet, the smart alec filled with impossible questions in Matthew, Judas as the cool kid smoking at the back of the classroom, the remedial dunce in James, the closeted gay man in Paul, and Philip as the new kid at school. It’s a fantastic re-imagining of how the Bible should have gone.

“I was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the machine-gun-like frequency of the punchlines. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve read in quite a while – but then when the ending comes, the poignancy and sense of loss is devastating. When I realised this ending reflected Richard’s loss of Heidi after she died, and that this might be the only chance of her work being performed now – I knew I had to take it on myself.”


Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps are known for their productions of classics, particularly Shakespeare, so the new show marks quite a departure from tradition. “This isn’t an Arrows show in the expected sense – it isn’t Shakespeare, there are no extended movement pieces, we’re not subverting a classic or switching genders – but hopefully we will retain enough of what has made the last six shows so successful and bring you a recognisable Arrows-shaped piece of entertainment – which I think means that I want to take characters that you think you know, and show you their humanity and vulnerability in a new way, whilst entertaining you senseless.

“In Arrows shows we normally try to take an old story and tell it in a new way, but with this, that exact action has already been performed by the writers before we got our hands on it. They took the Bible, spun it on its head and created The Gospel According To Philip. So the Arrows spin is done without an Arrow having to lift a finger. All we have to do now is bring it to life in the most fair and honest way possible. And make sure it’s funny, of course. Has to be funny.”

Staging a piece of new writing for the first time brings with it a new kind of pressure: “I’m wary of doing this one justice, as it’s the first time the script has ever been performed, and whilst we don’t have the shadows of hundreds of other past productions looming over us like we usually do with Shakespeare, this one seems even more important to get right because I really want this little show to have a great future, and go from strength to strength in years to come, whatever shape that might take. It’s a great piece, and deserves a long life.

“On the other hand, there might be less pressure in terms of reviews and audiences, because with Shakespeare that’s always massive. On our last show, Macbeth, the vision and direction that the witches would take absolutely plagued me in the preparation stages, because they’re so iconic, everyone has their version of what they should be like… it was very hard to try to honour those views, honour the world of our play, serve the narratives that the text has, and also show something new with them. Lots of pressure. So Philip doesn’t have that. Or perhaps it does! I mean, doesn’t everyone kind of have a preconceived notion of what Jesus looks like? In the west, he’s a Brad Pitt-esque, blue-eyed, golden-haired white man. So I guess there’s always pressure.”

Arrows & Traps’ fanbase of “devoted trappers” will, as always, spot some familiar faces in the cast. “A massive part of what makes an Arrows & Traps show so special is the people in it. We are a repertory company in the sense that there’s a core base of people involved, but we always try to mix it up with new actors, so it stays fresh.

“We have Pearce Sampson playing Jesus, a very talented funny actor whom people may recognise as our Porter and Lennox from Macbeth, and bright young star Alex Stevens playing Paul – he was our Malcolm in Macbeth and our Demetrius in Titus Andronicus. The deliciously watchable Adam Elliott plays Judas; audiences at the Jack will remember him as Karenin, the husband in our Anna Karenina, and in the title role of Philip we have Will Mytum, a great actor renowned on the Off West End circuit, who previously played Vronsky in our Anna Karenina, and Chiron in Titus Andronicus. We have Elle Banstead-Salim playing Mary Magdalene, coming hot off of finishing her brilliant turn as Lady Macduff and Witch in Macbeth, and Gareth Kearns playing Matthew. Gareth has been involved in every Arrows show so far, and recently it was my honour to watch his 100th performance with us. There’s no-one I’d rather have on this project than Gareth, as he’s perfectly suited for it.

“And then lastly we have three new actors, Tom Telford, Matthew Harrison-James, and Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes, all of whom I’ve auditioned in the past and was impressed by – it was just about getting the right role at the right time, which we’ve now found. I guess that’s a lesson in perseverance for any actor out there feeling like it’s too tough in the industry right now. We do listen, and we do remember, and we always come back to you when the time is right. So really, this amalgamation of both old and new faces is perhaps the thing about the show that I’m most looking forward to, because there is literally no weak link in these guys.”

Why should audiences come and see The Gospel According to Philip? “A brilliant tagline a friend used when I told her about the show was Passion Of The Christ With Jokes. If that doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket, then you’re dead inside. Also, supporting brilliant and passionate fringe venues like the Brockley Jack and Theatre N16 is so important if we want places like this to keep offering their communities such diverse and arresting art on their doorsteps.

“The play might make you think, but it will definitely make you laugh. It’s a great night out at the theatre. And the themes that it raises are exactly the things that we should be talking about right now. The world is a scary place, and terrible machinations are threatening to pull us apart as a human race. Faith is often held up as a banner or scapegoat for cruelty and hatred, and really, for things as old as religion, we need to go back to the start and look at what happened and learn from it. There’s something terrifying about the way that all the different religions have become so ingrained in our culture, our faiths, and yet really – every single one of them started as a flawed, wobbly cult, a series of men meeting in dark rooms telling stories and writing down rules for life. I think this play has a lot to say about our modern world, about those of us who are lost, and about where we should draw our strength from.

“Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a night of theological debate – there’s too many cock jokes in it for that. But as with the best of our satire, and I think Terry Pratchett may hold that crown for me, beneath the jokes and laughter there’s always a question, a poke in the ribs, something to argue about on the way home.”

Looking ahead, the rest of the season marks a return to more traditional fare, with the unique Arrows flavour that audiences have come to know and love. “The Broken Crown Season is epic. It’s massive. And it’s going to be the best work we’ve ever done. For me, the Broken Crown symbolises not just the fall of a king, but the breakdown and hollowness of responsibility, power and promise. It’s about ambition and the price that comes with it. It’s about kings, and gods, and leaders, but also relationships and trust. We’ve started things off with Macbeth, an obvious choice to get things rolling, now we’re tackling Jesus and the birth of Christianity, and after that we open our first true repertory double bill with Twelfth Night and Othello, performed simultaneously at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, on alternate nights over three weeks in November by the same cast. It’s going to be amazing fun, particularly on double show days where we do both texts.

“In the new year, we bring a modern horror-story vision of Frankenstein set in two different time periods, flicking in and out of a pair of narratives, and we finish with a thriller award-winning adaptation of Crime & Punishment, which has been boiled down into an action-packed, edge of your seat, 90-minute, three-hander, which I cannot wait to do, personally, as the script is electric. After that… watch this space.  The Arrows have plenty more stories to tell.”

Catch The Gospel According to Philip at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th August-3rd September, and Theatre N16 from 4th-8th September.