Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Theatre review: The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People

Although I don't listen to The Archers myself, it's hard to miss the discussion going on at the moment about its current domestic abuse storyline, that has apparently been building up for a couple of years before exploding into violence. So it's a comparison I can't help but make with The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, which Rosalind Blessed writes and stars in, and which has a nastiness barely concealed under its smiley surface. James (Duncan Wilkins) introduces himself to the audience as he cooks a surprise anniversary meal for his wife Robin (Blessed,) but it quickly becomes apparent this'll be less of a surprise and more of a shock, as the two have separated and this is Robin's new house, which he's broken into. The rest of the show bounces back and forth in time through their relationship, their best times always seeming to revolve around the various rescue dogs they've adopted over the years, their worst when they're left to deal with each other.

It's an uncomfortably intimate setting - in a traverse design by Clémence Devergnette - for a show about spousal abuse, very rarely physical but almost relentlessly psychological, as James sets about belittling and controlling Robin, who's unable to fight back as he's so good at pinpointing and exploiting her weaknesses. I've mentioned before, to be transparent in case anyone wants to accuse me of favouritism, that I went to university with Roz Blessed, so I found some parts of the play hard to watch, but I imagine a scene near the end where Robin is particularly worn down and broken would be uncomfortable for anyone whether you knew the actor/writer or not.

Rupert Holloway's production is stronger in creating tension than in the contrasting lighter side - although there is an element of the play that is a genuine celebration of man's relationship with dogs, and the particular rewards of adopting a rescue dog not everyone necessarily wants, the abuse storyline inevitably dominates. (It's always present, after all - even in the couple's happiest moments James is capable of getting the odd dig in.) And the play's climax doesn't quite feel organic to the story, although it would probably work better without the unnecessary interval breaking up the pace. But there's certainly something to be said for trying to approach a subject this dark with a more varied tone even if it doesn't always come off. And although it's never sympathetic to James* the play does make a concerted effort to understand him, and shows him as someone with an extraordinary ability to fool himself about his own actions. So if it's a sometimes flawed and uneven piece, it's certainly a quietly ambitious one.

The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People by Rosalind Blessed is booking until the 6th of May at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including interval.

*FFS, he looks a bit like Spike from Buffy, obviously he's a wrong'un

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