Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 31 March 2018
Proud Haddock’s production of Mrs Orwell was quite the success last year, earning a deserved transfer from the Old Red Lion to the Southwark Playhouse. And the company continues its ethos of celebrating “unearthed stories from classical playwrights” with this revival of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s 1935 play The Dog Beneath The Skin which rounds off the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Scandal season.
Mixing an almost fairytale-like quest with a stark warning to guard for the rise of fascism, it’s a fascinatingly drawn play. And Jimmy Walters’ production leans heavily into its curiosity with voiceover segments, drag cabarets and multiple songs (by Jeremy Warmsley) accompanying the lyrical twist of the rhyming couplets threaded throughout the script. With cleverly expressive movement work from Ste Clough, all this strangeness has a compelling quality to it.
The plot summary does little to dispel the peculiarity. In the cosy English village of Pressan Ambo, a yearly ritual has emerged whereupon one of their young men is dispatched on a quest to find Sir Francis Crewe, the son and heir to the local patriarch. This year, Alan Norman has his name drawn out of the hat and sets off on his journey across pre-Second World War Europe, accompanied by the faithful but enigmatic presence of canine companion Dog.
With memories of the First World War still fresh and the shadow of fascism already fallen on Germany at the time of writing, Auden and Isherwood make no bones about the politics of their play. Alan and Dog travel through a world that is darkening minute by minute as capitalist greed swells, as human decency declines, as totalitarianism winds its insidious way around society. And there’s something bold about the lack of nuance here, in a clear statement about how they feel about the state of this world.
The Dog Beneath The Skin is quite unlike your regular theatre fare and as such, it will have both its fans and detractors. I definitely err towards the former, its madcap energy winning me over and its satirical bite sufficient to make it stand out. Pete Ashmore is a strong central presence as Alan, Eva Feiler impresses as she slips from piano to MC to Chorus and much more besides, and the whole company deserve plaudits for their multi-roling.