THE POWER OF THE DOG
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 13 May, 1996

Why do plays which deal with the real problems of real people seem to become hidebound by the background of class? Ellen Dryden's The Power Of The Dog purports to deal with a number of women trapped, whether by choice or external pressures, into constricting roles, but in Sam Walters's production the family drama on the one hand seems irremediably middle-class, whereas the plotline of a brilliant but unruly school pupil on the other has the feeling of a sidelight into a little-glimpsed working-class conundrum all the more harmful to the play, as the relationship between the gifted Lisa and her teacher Vivien is intended to be the core of the piece.

This is, of course, horribly reductive; and indeed, during the second half relationships between characters become palpably more human and engaging. However, by this point the production is already seriously damaged: where Dryden presumably set out to establish characters and tensions before allowing them to attain varying degrees of personal insight into the others' difficulties, the effect has in fact been to present a group of almost universally unsympathetic characters who subsequently face the additional task of persuading an audience to care about them. They are confined not only within their chosen or assigned social roles, but also by the impressions they have made in Act One.

As Vivien, the bridge between the two worlds, Joan Moon indulges a fatal tendency to Act with a capital A: every line is invested with an ostentatiousness. This has the gravest effect in the crucial scene in which Vivien and Lisa level with each other; one can hear in Vivien's lines the lack of bullshit which the plain-speaking Lisa has come to respect, but such candour is quite absent from Moon's voice. Louisa Milwood-Haigh does a fine job of portraying Lisa as a rebel without a cause, least of all herself, but is robbed of a dynamic context in which to play.

In the scenes among Vivien's family, Barbara Lott turns in a sterling performance as her mother Grace, railing against the frustrations of infirmity after a stroke and indulging the privilege granted by her age and condition to be stroppy with all and sundry; as she often asserts, her body may be malfunctioning but her mind remains sharp. Simon Chandler builds up a portrait of cousin Allan as a contradictory knot of self-regard and real concern, but again the whole picture emerges too late. By the time Dryden and Walters allow the characters to acknowledge their own and others' situations, they have travelled too far down a road on which the audience may feel little urge to follow them. True, the play is about these people's unwillingness or inability to recognise the conditions of others, but a little more attempt at interaction earlier in the proceedings failed attempt, rather than outright refusal would deepen the effect of the little rapprochements at the end.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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