Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Summer recounts the relationships she had with her pet dogs throughout her life at a crossroads moment.
Sometimes, the best theatre can be what you chance upon. It wasn’t on the list of ‘must see’, you hadn’t heard about it from someone else (not easy as this was the first ever performance in the UK) and you didn’t know anyone in the cast. You’re just in the right place (Sweet Grassmarket) at the right time (Monday lunchtime with a couple of hours free before the next show).
This company, New Grove Creative, had just arrived from the US to perform a week of shows in the small studio space of Grassmarket 4. There was no way they could have recouped their expenses from the outset. This was theatre performed because there was a need for it to be seen, and I’m very glad they did so as it was one of the highlights of my Fringe.
The title alone is a little work of genius. The character in the story is called Summer. She loves dogs. The dog daze of Summer. Perfect. Sadly, I feel very badly for the company that their great British premiere is to barely half a dozen people. It’s a shame and it’s not fair but it is the nature of the beast.
It is not free of technical glitches (given it being the first performance here, that can be forgiven). There were sound problems with the effects at the start. The projections were too low on the screen – hugging the bottom when they should have been elevated to the top. The little video inserts, however, were marvellous. Put together with imagination and skill by Dylan J Robnett, some were quite beautiful.
I have to confess something here – I cry quite easily at theatre, especially when it involves animals. However, only twice have I welled up at the start of a show. The first time was at War Horse. This was the second time, and it hit me harder and quicker. For an animal lover with a huge affinity for dogs, what could be more heart-breaking than a person appearing in tears carrying a dog collar and a small casket of ashes? It’s affecting me to even type it. Within two minutes of the start of this play I was a snivelling wreck.
Based on a series of true stories (albeit from several sources), Summer tells us about the dogs she owned in the past, starting with the recently deceased Thunder. She describes their characters, how they were often taken for granted, and amazing feats they did which made each pooch a hero. One attacked an abusive partner. One found a lost wallet. Another alerted the family to a fire. At times, we are hearing how dogs literally saved (and finally save) her life. There are parallels with the somewhat bad hand Summer has been dealt as an adult, usually down to violent and controlling partners.
As Summer, Stacy Ann Strang is in total control of the piece. She has a great, warm and deep speaking voice. Close up, she is convinced by what she’s playing. You can’t fail to like her and it hurts to see her suffering so much.
She uses simple puppetry (puppy-try?) skills to convey the dogs. A jumper, or a glove puppet (there was even a moment when she first brought out the glove puppet so subtley I wondered if it was a real dog). It has a beautiful ending full of hope. The play reminds us to live in the moment and appreciate what you have.
There are but two small things I personally feel need adjusting. At one point, Summer plays a music box and sings the melody – but not at the same time or in the same key. It would have been far more effective to have gone with the box rather than ignore it. The other moment that jarred for me was when Summer drifts off to sleep and we see a video dream sequence. We don’t really have a warning this is coming and I started to wonder what was going on. It’s also, stylistically, very different to the rest of the play. It’s quirky, comic and fast-paced. It doesn’t seem like a dream sequence as the mood is at odds with what it is conveying. There is nothing wrong with the video per se, but it sits uneasily in the show because it isn’t announced and it interrupts the pace.
I think Sweet Venues was the right venue for this piece. It’s intimate and it needs a small space or you would lose the humanity (or caninity). Don’t be put off by the minor niggles – it is poetic, touching and life-affirming. Ruth Cantrell’s writing is persuasive and naturalistic and I sincerely wish this wonderful little show well for the future.