Stories of life, growth and perseverance in dour and desperate neighbourhoods are undoubtedly worth telling. The nooks and crannies of experiences otherwise overlooked by mainstream culture are often rich with opportunities for pathos, expression, and diversity, and as citizens we all ought to champion stories of the oppressed and disregarded. Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog (2017) is certainly one of these stories. It is not, unfortunately, a compelling or engaging piece of theatre, and for all its noble intentions, the flaws in design and execution are too great to overlook.
The play is a one-hander, with a runtime of two and a half hours. In the Traverse Theatre’s staging, directed by Natalie Ibu, actor Kwaku Mills portrays Boy, the sole character onstage, who narrates this sprawling, multi-year tale as he grows from a young, bullied child to an older, disillusioned and distraught teen. The story focuses on a dreary street in Tottenham, north London, on which despondent drunks and anxious shop owners face off against violent youths and, from time to time, the long arm of the law. Boy observes these disparate characters with intrigued attention and with the help of various voiceovers his narration layers the street with detail. The twists and turns of Kene’s script cover myriad subjects of life in this place and in his time, from South Asian immigrants trying to live up to their forebears’ expectations, to local infidelity, to racially problematic beauty standards, to concepts of nonviolence and protest, to undiagnosed dyslexia in impoverished youths, to 90s-centric toys and technology. The visuals are mostly dark, harsh shadows, enveloping Amelia Jane Hankin’s stark set: a blunt, grey cube in the center of the stage that resembles nothing so much as a kid’s (tower) block , but evokes the air of unpleasant, grungy decay that seems to envelop the whole place, at least in Boy’s eyes.
As Kene writes him, and Mills plays him, Boy is the center of all the world’s woes. He is mercilessly bullied in school. His mother both cannot afford to and seems uninterested in buying him the amenities he desperately craves. He seems to have no friends, no confidence, and in everyone’s eyes but his own, not much of a future. When the audience first meets Boy, he is an outspokenly optimistic kid, who believes that if he does good, ‘good’ will circle back to him later in life, and so he willingly undergoes derision and torment at the hands of local bullies, and others, because the more he forgives them, the better his life must eventually become. It does not take long, however, for the cruelties of life in this area to drag him so far into crippling misery and senseless pain that the fable of ‘good things coming to those who wait’ starts to ring completely hollow for Boy, and he realizes that letting the onslaught of life beat him down is never going to liberate him. It was only going to make things worse.
Midway through Good Dog, the audience may feel the same. Not only because the central metaphor of Kene’s script (a pair of dogs Boy observes clashing with each other over many years) is so obvious that its eventual payoff could have come 90 minutes earlier without any meaning lost, but mainly since this production is long, exhausting, and clunky. The sound design, by Helen Skiera, is cacophonous, grating, and more inane than affecting. The choreography of Boy’s solo performance, whose movement was directed by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, is disorienting (see Boy inexplicably leaping on and off the grey block while he walks around, which happens a lot). Mills’ accent, assisted by dialect coach Joel Trill, was noticeably strained and inconsistent, so that Boy sounded like he was warming-up in rehearsal, well way from the street and . Technical elements smack of artifice and there’s that uncanny smugness that much of contemporary British theatre seems to be slipping into.
It is remarkable that Mills was able to learn two and a half hours worth of lines and movement and perform them onstage on tour. One wishes, however, that the lines and movements were not as derivative and staid as these. The character seemed a strange fit for Mills’ talents and overall his performance was wasted.
This is understandable, however, given Kene’s script, as that is the weakest element of the production. The tone and content of Good Dog are suffocatingly bleak, and lack both a sense of humour and an ounce of self-awareness. The phraseology Kene employs is labyrinthine and more irritating than anything else. A few thin jokes about naughties nostalgia got a snicker here and there, but the one genuinely hilarious and surprising moment came when a supporting character dies in such an improbable and horrifying manner that the show’s claims to authority or seriousness were dashed in full there and then. The death in itself is, of course, not intentionally funny, but brutally tragic, and yet as this piece is written, each scene seems hellbent on topping the last one with even more misery and suffering, and the showy depravity of this character’s final moments can do nothing but amuse.
Good Dog is coated in emotional squalor – a poor and baffling choice. Most of Kene’s narrative seems more interested in simply shocking an audience into stupefied submission with ‘Look how sad this can get’ antics than telling a story in a creative or engaging manner. It is telling, and rather depressing, that this script has been picked up and praised by critics. From my point of view – and, ok, I don’t know London’s meaner streets – it sounded very contrived and ends up with the most incompetent portrayal of a marginalized voice that I have seen.
Which is a shame, because again, stories such as these frequently offer important perspectives, which others should listen to. But Good Dog ends up taking all the worst elements of ‘important’ dramas and shamelessly repeating their most self-serious moral mantras so that they come off as painfully obvious by the time Boy utters them. Of course, much of the subject matter the show deals with is hugely important but nearly all of it has been handled more intelligently and dynamically in narratives like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Strictly Arts Theatre’s outstanding Freeman (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). This last connection is especially relevant, as Kene chooses to include a riot sequence at the end of Good Dog so reminiscent of Lee’s Do the Right Thing climax that it seriously threatens to overstep the bounds of homage.
Good Dog ends with an affirmation of accepting conflict and learning how best to fight back against the ‘bigger dogs’ of this world, even if it means being ‘put down’ in the process. The metaphor is overly wordy, unclear, and could do with some further consideration of just what it is trying to say. In that manner, it suits the larger production perfectly.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller
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