Saturday, 6 June 2015

Theatre review: The Dogs of War

A programme note by author Tim Foley mentions that while The Dogs of War wasn't written as a political play, it's taken on some of that significance in light of the new Conservative majority. Certainly this Government isn't one likely to be friendly even to disabilities that are visible and obvious, and those that are invisible have often struggled to be taken seriously anyway. So mental health seems to be a subject matter the arts are increasingly trying to remind people exist, and it's certainly there to be seen in Foley's play, even if something else is invisible. Mam (Maggie O'Brien) has been mentally ill for many years, and when she had to leave work Dad (Paul Stonehouse) took early retirement to care for her. When their son Johnny left for university, they moved from Yorkshire to a remote little house in rural Northern Ireland.

When Johnny (Richard Southgate) returns after his first year away, Mam isn't much better, sleeping through the day and barely ever leaving her chair except to pick a fight with him. The only things she actually seems to like are her trio of invisible dogs.


But what seems like another symptom of Mam's illness is something quite different, as it turns out everyone else can see and hear the dogs, but for some reason Johnny no longer can. What he can see is Cleopatra (Melanie McHugh,) who appears to him to bolster the increasing delusions of grandeur and Caesar complex he's developing.


So The Dogs of War plays out two parallel storylines, as Mam's situation sees no improvement, especially when it looks like the dogs she's so dedicated to aren't settling in well to their new rural environment. O'Brien injects Mam with a real viciousness born of her illness, which makes the play hard to watch at times. Stonehouse provides the evidence that it's not just the mentally ill person who suffers, as Dad's every attempt to help is thrown back in his face, while McHugh doubles as a neighbour whose good intentions also backfire.


Meanwhile Southgate impresses in the less naturalistic half of Foley's play, where we're never quite sure if what we're seeing is happening or just in Johnny's head, and the severity of Mam's condition distracts everyone from the fact that Johnny could well have inherited something equally if not more dangerous. There's a jagged quality to Tom O'Brien's production which leaves a few loose ends but suits the theme of fractured sanity. There are lighter comic moments that mean The Dogs of War isn't relentlessly bleak, but it's certainly an unflinching look at an illness that makes the sufferer their own worst enemy.

The Dogs of War by Tim Foley is booking until the 20th of June at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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