FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Harry Burton, designed by by Isabella Van Braeckel (Construction James Ashby) with Lighting by Ton Turner and Sound Design by Fergus O’Hare. Fight Director’s Hadley Smith, Assistant Director Jessica Walker, Scenic Artist Zowie Wise. Till March 7th.
So she’s intellectually – hyper-allergenic? Spiky but alluring Keri Levin (Victoria Yeates) finds the dog walker who’s arrived is her last chance: no-one else will touch her. There’s a Pekinese bitch Keri’s named in gender-blind casting, Wolfgang Amadeus. But as you might guess from Paul Minx’s The Dog Walker, pacily directed by Harry Burton – it’s not about the dog.
Not that it could be. There’s a Python joke lurking. Once that’s sprung with Keri herself barking on all fours, wagging her tail, we’re into naked misfit territory. There is a dog, but. Keri’s a reclusive e-book writer, hunkering in a book-rich flat.
Bookshelves are the only neat thing about the place, designed by Isabella Van Braeckel who gives the tiny-but-Tardis Jermyn Street stage a dimension and reach behind with a kitchen and bedroom suggested, all atmospherically lit by Tom Turner. There’s yellow-distressed walls and further Spanish-style shutters to bounce even more sunshine into a sweltering midsummer in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s 1995. A litter of classical music throughout feels like another protective skin, one that gave Wolfgang her name.
Vodka bottles too. And despite the rich carpets there’s threadbare self-neglect, a hint of squalor. And there’s another occupant: a ghost girl the anniversary of whose death by a stray bullet looms: it troubles Keri.
The only life’s a sometime open window stage right where Debora Weston’s voice as neighbour and Keri’s mother leave food and exhortations outside – to a ricochet of screams back and forth. Fergus O’Hare’s sound envelops us with this, so thick you can smell it.
Enter Herbert Doakes (Andrew Dennis) a self-proclaimed ex-professor of literature – he quotes reams of Spenser – from Jamaica who’s deracinated, whose money has long gone, it transpires to his ex-wife Julia and whose mother dominates his life. Nevertheless on finding no-one answering he steals in and takes a sly swig from a vodka bottle. Later he tells yapping Keri he’s at AA three times a week.
And quotes his company’s rules at Keri like a barrage balloon, just so she doesn’t bite. Oh and ‘I am the most emotionally responsive dog walker in the district. I scored 4.8 on the City Empathy Test.’ Right… now try walking the walk with Keri.
Quite apart from a terror of physical touch – quite at odds with his main job as sweep – Doakes has had a dog die on him already. Another and he’s out of his second job, one he takes pride in.
There’s a slow dance of revisits, gift of goat with a name, freshly culled and curried this morning, as Doakes – as Keri calls him with a hint of condescension – essays in with offerings. And finally, a crematory urn which Keri reverently tips out the window in between telling Doakes the kind of man she’s had since he last called. Her defensive lines are brilliant. To Doakes’ ‘Jesus saves’ she ripostes ‘but he doesn’t pay health insurance’. She culls from her e-books too where she sounds so savoir-faire. So like that throughout: first it’s Keri who appears more screwball, then Doakes, then the rescuer/victim/persecutor triangle fuses into a poignant double-act of pain approaching climax and reveal.
Yeates’ finely-ill-tuned Keri is a delight. Distrait and sexy at the same time, her emotional range from brittle to hilarious to preppily warm to rage to devastated is moving, at times overwhelming. You realize the whole time Keri’s on an emotional precipice, waiting to jump or pull back; and revealing finally why she can’t do that for herself. Wolfgang stands for a huger loss than most of us could cope with. Yeates is outstandingly fine, going for broke.
And so is Dennis, from Doakes’ easy Jamaican carapace full of rolling with verbal punches to prim faux-upright to frightened to the man who wants to know how to touch and get in touch with his vulnerability, there’s a world cracked open. And he’s also uproariously funny at Doakes – and sometimes Keri’s – expense. There’s a frightening moment too choreographed with shocking conviction by fight director Hadley Smith.
There’s a few niggles. If you’re going to get posh on radio, announcing a recording of Menhuin playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto, get a conductor who made his name before Menhuin retired in 1986. Ricardo Chailly conducted Vladimir Repin, whom Menhuin praised, hence confusion. Easily changed.
Minx writes engagingly about how The Dog Walker moved from angry and wooden characters to sheer chemistry. There’s a slight suspension of disbelief about how these edgy dynamics really start, but loneliness is an acute driver. And the end’s beautifully distressed literally teetering on a plunge into tragedy.
The odd couple too seem almost too deliciously improbable. This is a play that stands or falls by its two actors though, and even premiered in the U.S. instead of here, I doubt if it could receive finer performances than this, two actors hurling themselves like a mighty reckoning in little room. And Minx is rebutting my small caveats as I write this. Even now I want to know what life, not Minx will do with his characters. So will you.