Jermyn Street Theatre’s Scandal season comes to an end with a production of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s play The Dog Beneath The Skin, produced in conjunction with Proud Haddock. Described as “part madcap misadventure, part piercing social satire”, the play is based on two earlier Auden plays (The Fronny and The Chase) and marked the pair’s first collaboration.
Every year the village of Pressan Ambo sends a man out in search of the missing heir to Honeypot Hall, Francis Crewe – they are chosen completely at random, and given the incentive of Francis’ sister’s hand in marriage should they return successful. To date, however, none have returned at all… This time around the unassuming Alan Norman is assigned the task; he ends up taking along a local stray dog as a companion. Early on in their travels they meet a pair of journalists who offer to help, and along the way the four of them encounter a curious array of people and customs – from the King who regularly executes rebels (the practice now feels normalised to him, it happens that often) to a group of easily distracted asylum inmates. Will Alan ever find Francis? And why does the dog keep getting into fits of jealousy?
It is quite a bizarre piece of theatre, but manages to be an incredibly compelling watch thanks to the range of performance styles it embraces. The default setting is slightly surreal humour; you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Monty Python play at times. This may be slightly informed by the performances, but there’s no doubting it’s all there in the text. In between scenes there is some gorgeously evocative poetry (as you might expect, with Auden involved) – most of the play is written in rhyme, to great comic effect, but it’s these snatches that really capture the imagination. The play isn’t devoid of darkness, bearing in mind it was written in the interwar period as the clouds of conflict were starting to gather again – both Auden and Isherwood spent time in Berlin in the 1930s, so between them they were perfectly placed to see the effect of the rise of Nazism first-hand. The feeling of helplessness & potential doom is something we can relate to now as Britain lurches to the right, however these moments do feel a little forced in comparison with the rest of the play. Though this discord does at least serve to make Auden & Isherwood’s attempted lessons memorable.
The production seems to be framed as a play within a play, opening & closing with a song and some narration – Rebecca Browser’s simple set design suits this approach perfectly. With a small stage in the left-hand side and curtain backdrops, as well as an upright piano over the other side of the main performance area, it looks really good but also suggests that these are just people putting on a play. The scene transitions are really slickly done; instead of trying to hide furniture being taken on or off, it’s incorporated into the storytelling as a whole. This is one of a number of clever directing choices from Jimmy Walters, with movement direction from Ste Clough. Jeremy Warmsley’s music brings the whole thing together, recognisably placing it in its historical setting.
If you take a quick glance at the programme you’ll see an extraordinary set of characters listed, all played by an extremely hardworking cast of eight – it’s even more impressive when you notice that two of the actors stick to a single role each, leaving the others to take on the rest!
Rujenne Green is fickle as Alan’s intended, Iris Crewe, heartlessly moving onto the next engagement when the village assumes Alan isn’t coming back – her turn as the Queen is quite affecting, as she seems rightly traumatised by the ongoing tradition of executions. Suzann McLean & James Marlowe are mostly seen as the journalists, who you can’t always be sure you can trust; McLean has the unenviable task of playing the grieving mother, railing against war and Pressan Ambo’s new order, though she shows real conviction. Eva Feiler is very funny & strong in all her roles, especially as the show’s narrator – she also plays the bulk of the piano score throughout.
Adam Sopp and Edmund Digby Jones are responsible for a good deal of the audience’s laughter, with some fantastic characterisation and impeccable comedic instincts. Digby Jones’ turn as the King does stand out (with a familiar “what do you do?” as he greets the front row), as does his strangely unstable billionaire who’s frustrated at his poet son; Sopp, too, gives some memorable performances, perhaps saving two of his best for later on at the cabaret with his Destructive Desmond in the style of an old school northern comic (who couldn’t care less for “Mahogany Rembrandt”) and a song from the inimitable Madame Bubbi.
Cressida Bonas proves herself to be excellent at physical comedy, admirably spending the majority of the play crawling around and masked up to play the Dog – especially hilarious when her taste in drink and ability to cheat at cards are revealed. Pete Ashmore portrays Alan as something of an everyman, allowing you to relate to his trials & tribulations (if not his specific situation!). He and Bonas make a great double act, bringing both humour & depth to their performances.
My verdict? A bizarre, but ultimately very enjoyable play, marked with memorable performances from the entire cast – an excellent production of an undiscovered classic.
The Dog Beneath The Skin runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 31 March 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.