Heart of a Dog by Jim McGrath, presented at the Street Theatre, began life as a novel of the same name by Bulgakov, and after seeing this production I’m curious to read it.
Written/adapted through The Hive writers program at the Street Theatre, and directed by Nick Byrne, it’s a production packed with some great ideas, some good music, and meta-theatrical moments borrowed from various styles of theatre.
Story-wise, this is what I got: a surgeon (PJ Williams), who has a pretty assistant (Maryann Wright), finds a dog (Dene Kermond) and performs an experiment of Frankenstein proportions that transforms this dog into a man. But even though he’s been ‘humanised’ he still acts like an animal, so eventually they reverse the procedure. They are periodically interrupted in their endeavours by tenancy officials (Ben Drysdale and Amy Dunham), and a wealthy and frisky bureaucrat (Moya Simpson) with plastic surgery issues. There are a couple of under developed love stories chucked in for good measure. There’s a juicy parable in the writing, around the struggle between the animal and the civilised within us all, which was screaming to be more thoroughly realized. The program states that this story “dissects definitions of masculinity in an evolving society” and I wish it did. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite scratch the surface.
There were some great moments in this show, especially those borrowing from the vaudevillian style, and the use of farce. Some duets, some of the physical work and some great jokes and gags were present; but it wasn’t consistent. Some characters were highly caricatured; others were more naturalistic and earnest. Everyone in the play had a different accent, and sometimes their own accents differed from speech to song.
Dene Kermond was great as the dog Sharik, his highly developed physical skills lending themselves brilliantly to a show such as this. PJ Williams was fantastic during the scenes but looked uncomfortable when it came to the singing and I would have loved for him to attack the songs with the same vigour and verve as the text. Moya Simpson was very entertaining in her two roles, her highly stylistic approach to character fitting for the material. Ben Drysdale’s Shvonder was delightful and worked well for the same reason. Both Amy Dunham and Maryann Wright’s singing was lovely but I felt sorry for them with tired stereotypical female roles without much substance that gave them not much to play with. Perhaps the style and genre was also not one they were comfortable within.
The composition by Marc Robertson, was often successful and I enjoyed the fact that the score was sometimes cabaret, sometimes rock musical, sometimes more traditional and folk influenced. The musicians were solid and their presence in the set was integrated well into the performance.
However, much of the music was over complicated and over written in it’s modernist construction and, unfortunately, most of the performers struggled with it. It didn’t help that the sound mix, particularly at these moments and with the band in full swing, was terrible. So terrible in fact that I couldn’t hear a single word the performers were singing and this was to great detriment to the overall understanding of the production. Even though the premise seems pretty straight forward I can’t help feeling like I missed the finer details.
Set design by Imogen Keen was a highlight. A stage space inspired by the energy, abstraction and geometry of a Kandinsky and 1920s Soviet poster design – coupled with lots of retro gym equipment and perfect as an offering for the madness on stage. I was so tantalised by the possibilities for the use of all this equipment but it was under-utilised. The costumes were beautifully rendered and in equal measure gothic, glam rock, and children’s dress-ups. Lighting by Guy Harding was effective, with a particularly fun sequence where the lighting playfully interacted with the performers.
With an unthinkable 2 and half weeks to rehearse this production, this creative team and ensemble have actually done an incredible job to pull this together in such a short space of time. I still had a fun night in the theatre, and I hope this will go on to be further developed in the near future.