The Dog Beneath the Skin is a play which carries with it the scent of wildflower, dense forests, sparkling streams and the expanse of fertile countryside. A setting which is near hypnotic in its tranquil beauty, but one that drives home an underlying message – beware of the complacency that lies beneath the surface of such a place – one that may breed all manner of things brutal and inhuman.
Originally a collaboration between W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, the play was first produced in England in 1936 under its original title, The Dog Beneath the Skin, or Where is Francis? Its themes foretell the horror that is about to plunge the world into darkness with the advent of World War II.
As the play opens, we are in Pressan Ambo, a semblance of what sleepy towns and villages looked like in Germany in 1934, the year Adolph Hitler achieved full dictatorial power as leader of the German Nazi Party. In the opening scene, the stage is sectioned off into two parts, one a landscaped backdrop that conveys a feeling of unease, the other a homely area awash with soft amber lighting and a piano. No one here is safe and it is the imaginative power of Rebecca Brower’s set design and Catherine Webb’s lighting design that gets this ominous message across.
Soon we are greeted by a piano player and sweet voices which warn of dark consequences if one ignores the virtues of diligence and clean living. Jeremy Warmsley has composed a lilting melody that immediately captures the terror that is already on the doorstep. The set is then disassembled and carried off in pieces, before we learn of the quest that drives the plot.
Francis Crewe, son and heir of an influential patriarch, has been missing for a number of years. Since his dead father’s estate cannot be settled until Francis is found, a vicar (Edmund Digby Jones) holds a lottery each year to select a town local to find Francis. If successful, the man will then be wedded to Iris Crewe, Francis’ sister and heir to half their father’s land holdings. Thus far, eight men have set out to find Francis and eight have failed. This year, the vicar draws the name of Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore) from a hat, and Alan is assigned the task of finding Francis Crewe. Immediately after, an eager to please, tail-wagging dog appears (Cressida Bonas), and like Dorothy and Toto in the Wizard of Oz, Alan and The Dog set off together to find Francis Crewe. Both Ashmore and Bonas create the emotional connection to the multifarious aspects of the piece. We care about the two of them because they care so much about each other.
Along the route to finding Francis, who it turns out is hiding in plain sight, The Dog and Alan Norman encounter all sorts of adventures, each a foreboding of the nationalist threat that is engulfing the territory known as WestLand (Deutshland). Throughout the play, the actors speak their lines in the lilt of poetic rhyme, which works beautifully as the story is told in allegory. And, with the exception of Ashmore and Bonas, all the actors take on multiple roles within the play, done seamlessly and with great gusto – no doubt a credit to Director Jimmy Walters ability to overcome the challenges of a huge cast and a play with multiple scene changes. No review would be complete without mentioning Movement Director Ste Clough and his work with Cressida Bonas. There were moments where I forgot it was an actor I was watching, so realistic were Bonas’ movements as the loveable Dog.
Review by Loretta Monaco
The sleepy English village of Pressan Ambo has a secret. Ten years ago, Sir Francis Crewe, heir to the local estate disappeared. Every year a young man is chosen by lot to go searching for him. Alan Norman, accompanied by a surprisingly intelligent dog, sets out on a journey through pre-War Europe.
First published in 1935 and first performed in 1936, Auden and Isherwood’s vivid depiction of a world on the brink of collapse has never seemed so timely. Part madcap misadventure, part piercing social satire the play originally served as a pre-war satire against the backdrop to the rise of fascism in pre-war 1930’s Europe.
Alan Norman Pete Ashmore
The Dog Cressida Bonas
Ensemble Edmund Digby Jones
(Cast playing a number of roles)
Director Jimmy Walters
Composer Jeremy Warmsley
Designer Rebecca Brower
Lighting Designer Catherine Webb
Sound Designer Dinah Mullen
Movement Director Ste Clough
Associate Designer Daisy Blower
Assistant Director Dale Monie
The Dog Beneath the Skin
Performance Dates Wednesday 7th – Saturday 31st March 2018
Mon – Sat 7.30pm, Saturday 3.30pm
Running time 150 Minutes (including 15 minutes interval)
Age Guidance 16+
Jermyn Street Theatre,
16b Jermyn Street
London SW1Y 6ST