The Dog Beneath The Skin – Review

Cressida Bonas and Pete Ashmore in The Dog Beneath the Skin. Images Sam Taylor.

Great writers respond to times of major conflict or global upheaval by taking pen to paper and usually knocking out a satire or polemic against warmongering.

Siegfried Sassoon took literary pot shots during the First World War. Brecht did it with his parable play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, for the Second.

WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood got together to create a piercing satire, The Dog Beneath The Skin, now a rarely performed episodic play that, like Brecht, warned about the rise of fascism.

Can there be a better time to dust off the cobwebs and revisit Dog, particularly at a time when we have a pugnacious Trump sabre-rattling with North Korea’s volatile Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Putin?

Unfortunately the cynic in me does wonder why the mutt is so seldom revived.

The 1930s poetic drama returned to the stage on Friday but this uneven and overlong new production, running at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, has lost much of its subtlety. Its nuanced writing is now replaced by broad brushstrokes and clumsy physical comedy.

The fine poetry of the play seems to be interpreted by director Jimmy Walters as a wartime revue.

The result is a jokey, gauche, drama school skit that is over-egged with knowing looks and narrative, and is now a parody of a satire.

There is an element of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in Dog, which was also known as Where is Francis? in both style and narrative.

The action follows the journey of its hero, the dashing and principled Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore,) through a series of European countries that are wrecked by corruption, debauchery and chaos.

And, along the way he meets a cast of characters that range from the sinister to the deranged.

It begins in Pressan Ambo, an everyman village somewhere in Middle England, and the play goes on to describe a quest by Alan Norman to find Sir Francis Crewe, the missing heir of Honeypot Hall.

His search takes him on a satiric journey accompanied by a large dog which, in this case, is played in a gas mask by Cressida Bonas.

The cast of eight create more than 50 characters with Edmund Digby Jones being given the lunatic, driven, menacing and unbalanced men, which, if he was performing a showy comedy, would be star turns. Here they are all rather obvious.

His oily Vicar is given a fine and terrifying speech during the play’s climax but it only just stays this side of caricature.

Bonas, who spends most of the performance dressed as a dog, isn’t convincing as a canine and adds little to the show’s appeal.

She crawls around, occasionally wiggles her derriere, and generally acts like Snowy to Norman’s Tintin.

But Ashmore’s Norman is more astute than Tintin and is very much in the mould of John Buchan’s noble Richard Hannay.

He’s the story’s moral compass, representing England’s traditional ideals of right and wrong.

Brave, upstanding and virtuous, he is the epitome of decency and it is a fine performance that is occasionally at odds to the rest of the company who appear to be performing vaudeville.

The production has occasional highlights. I enjoyed the cynicism and opportunism of the show’s two jaded hacks, played by James Marlow and Suzann McClean.

Their comments about censorship keeping much of England in ignorance should the balloon finally go up are as prevalent now, with government-backed moved to try and gag the modern press, as it was in earlier wars.

A bit of a dog’s dinner and a disappointing end to a patchy Scandal Season.

The Dog Beneath The Skin runs at Jermyn Street Theatre until March 31.

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