The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Old Red Lion Theatre)

The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington, until February 1st)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A two-hander about the breakdown of a marriage compared to the loyalty shown by pet dogs might seem an odd take on the oft-dramatised subject of relationships, but in Rosalind Blessed’s play The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People it becomes a nuanced and unsettling affair.

Staged as part of a “residency” of her work at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington (alongside the effective Lullabies for the Lost), there’s an opportunity to see each piece as an individual drama or across an afternoon and evening. Both parts of the double bill are well worth seeing.

The title of this play, first seen four years ago, might suggest a jaunty romcom but the truth of the hard-hitting drama is far more harrowing. What starts out as a tender and quirky love story involving a couple who met while at university unravels into a terrifying 70 minutes of obsession, possessiveness and violence.

In some exceptionally clever and mature writing, Blessed constantly shifts the balance (and audience sympathies) between the pair who have been married for five years, yet separated for two of them. What causes disillusionment? What brings happiness? When does the perfect begin to stain? Who is there to offer a paw of comfort in the relationship?

On the one hand is James, an easy-going charmer desperate to save his marriage (he describes himself sadly as a “very nearly ex-husband”) and convincing when he tells friends that he has no idea why things are breaking down so badly. The play opens with him cooking a meal to mark that fifth wedding anniversary in a cheeky chat – but the eggs aren’t the only things getting scrambled as the fluffy comic tone simmers into something far creepier. It is an intricate performance from Duncan Wilkins, who even draws members of the audience into his side of the argument.

But as the cracks begin to show we discover a manipulative monster who wants to “put his wife back together,” a hateful tyrant who refuses to accept the truth or to understand his wife’s delicate mental state. It is to Wilkins’ credit that he manages to present a character who rarely attracts loathing so the revelations come as a blow to the stomach.

Blessed gives an equally fine performance as Robin (the same character from Lullabies for the Lost, but in an “alternate universe” version), whose insecurities about her image and low self esteem leave her vulnerable. She is unable to let go of the damaging relationship yet her true feelings are exposed shockingly  when she cries out “I never want any man to own any part of me ever again.”

This see-saw relationship never seems less than believable and Blessed has admitted that parts of it are drawn from experience, which certainly comes out in vivid writing and performance. It is all the more remarkable that she makes her points so calmly and doesn’t want every one of her lines to be screamed loudly and underlined with marker pens.

The unconditional love and unwavering acceptance of dogs is contrasted with the volatility of a partner who swings between unbridled declarations of affection and rage caused by too much drink and an unwillingness to accept the end of a relationship. In a clever twist when we see the loyal Staffie he is played by Wilkins, who is so much in character that he sniffs the legs of audience members or sneezes into their faces.

As the layers are unpeeled we begin to understand the truth of the situation, which builds to a horrific climax. With domestic abuse not all the scars are visible, with words having the terrible power to wound, yet psychotic behaviour will ultimately cause an individual to lose control. It takes time for the truth to be revealed, leaving the audience to keep questioning what is being shown and what we think we know.

Director Caroline Devlin understands the strength of the script and allows the words and characters to tell their own story while Anna Kezia Williams’ cardboard box white set (shared with Lullabies for the Lost) is simple but multi-functional.

With both performance and script Rosalind Blessed proves herself to be an important voice with a significant and distinct contribution to offer theatre. The two plays in rep offer a platform that will make many want to see more of her work.

The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People is the sort of well-written and acted drama that inevitably comes with its own warning about the distressing content and will resonate uncomfortably with many. But however hard it may be to watch, it constantly grabs the attention, most assuredly having something to say, providing a darker but important facet to understanding the truth about relationships – and how we might treat each other better.

David Guest

Images: Natalie Wells

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/

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