Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 7 May, 1999

Although not filmic in its approach, Richard Zajdlic's play has a host of cinematic reference points. For a brief while in the mid- to late 1980s there was a vogue for "yuppie nightmare" films, in which nice, clean-cut young people found themselves out of their depth films like Jonathan Demme's Something Wild and Martin Scorsese's After Hours. Dogs Barking is very much in the same territory to be precise, the "tenant from hell with law on his side" territory of John Schlesinger's Pacific Heights.

The action opens with Alex brittly waking, and vainly trying to eject, an unkempt Neil from her spare sofabed and the flat which, it transpires, they had lived in as a couple for five years until his quasi-adulterous departure several months earlier. Neil not only digs his heels in, but demands either half of the flat or half of the sale price thereof, although it is clear that he really wants the former; he is caught in the act of trying to ship out Alex's belongings to hold to ransom, goes through her purse, steals keys to the new locks she has had fitted and through it all maintains that, as joint signatory to the lease, he is within his rights and that the police would not get involved in such a "domestic".

Zajdlic's first act is consistently unsettling, but never quite plausible; Neil, Alex and her sister Vicky are all too incessant and accomplished in their verbal viciousness, both in service and return. After the interval, things grow a little programmatic; we are shown in turn the insecurities of each of the sisters and of Neil's ineffectual minion Splodge. The announcement of Alex's pregnancy by Neil's ex-best friend is both a classic first-act cliff-hanger and a dead cert for violently induced miscarriage (not precisely, but near enough) as the moment of maximum tension; this is followed by a coda which both nods to the end of Coppola's The Conversation and engages in a flashback to pile on the dramatic irony.

A clutch of fine performances, particularly from Tony Curran as the ever-threateneing Neil and Raquel Cassidy as the glacial yet slightly uncertain Alex (despite a tendency, along with Caroline Catz as Vicky, to go in for slight, Parkinsonistic head-shakes of suppressed aggression) and a solid production by Mike Bradwell nevertheless fail to render matters entirely plausible. In this battle for and about personal space of various kinds (Nathalie Gibbs's design emphasises the point by having a copy of the Guardian's "Space" supplement on the coffee table throughout), Zajdlic makes things too spatially and emotionally claustrophobic from the start for us ever to gain a sense of what is really at stake.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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