Theatre reviews: Good Dog | The Dark | The Twelve Pound Look

Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry as the boy and his mother fleeing Idi Amin's rule in Uganda. Picture: Helen Murray
Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry as the boy and his mother fleeing Idi Amin's rule in Uganda. Picture: Helen Murray
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IF MONOLOGUE is often the defining theatrical form of our time, then with Good Dog, playing at the Traverse this week, the young British writer and actor Arinze Kene proves himself a master of it. Based on his own experience of growing up in the early 2000s on a housing estate in Hackney, Good Dog is a full-length solo play – almost two and a half hours, with an interval – in which Kene tells the story of a young black boy who has internalised all the messages he has ever received, from school, from church and from his absent father, about how good things come to good people who stick to the rules and stay out of trouble. The boy is mercilessly bullied at school, and his community is full of people behaving badly and getting away with it.

Good Dog, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Kwaku Mills puts in an enthralling performance as the boy

Kwaku Mills puts in an enthralling performance as the boy

The Dark, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh***

The Twelve Pound Look, Eastgate Theatre, Peebles ***

Yet for a long while, he clings to his creed, explaining it to the audience, and building up a vivid, empathetic and sometimes frightening vision of the place and people around him. It’s only when puberty kicks in, and with it a growing rage at the injustice around him, that his belief-system begins to crumble. He starts to fight back; and although this is in some ways a tragic development, what Kene achieves, with a real radical brilliance, is to make us see how change – both personal and political – can sometimes only come through that kind of violent or disruptive reaction to too much pain. The play is lifted throughout by an enthralling performance from Kwaku Mills as the boy; and if its rich, unstoppable flow of language and metaphor sometimes seems almost overwhelming, it is so well handled – in Natalie Ibu’s fine production for her own company Tiata Fahodzi – that the story powers on magnificently, to an ending that allows for more than a glimmer of hope.

There’s an equally powerful story afoot in Nick Makoha’s The Dark, appearing at the Traverse and Tron this week in a touring production by London-based producers Fuel and Ovalhouse. Set in 1970s East Africa, during Idi Amin’s murderous Ugandan regime, Makoha’s 80-minute play tells the story of a little boy who flees with his mother from Kampala across the border into Kenya, travelling in a matatu – an unofficial mini-bus – with a jumbled cross-section of Ugandan society, and risking arrest at every checkpoint.

Unlike Kene, though, Makoha, who is best known for his award-winning poetry, presents his story not as a monologue, but through a combination of monologue and live action – featuring Michael Balogun as the narrator and various male characters, and Akiya Henry as his mother and other female travellers – that never quite settles into a convincing dramatic rhythm; and it’s perhaps significant that the best of the writing and acting comes in the narrator’s monologue sequences, which are often full of a rich and frightening lyricism.

JM Barrie, too, made the writing transition from page to stage; but it was more than 25 years after his first stage success that he penned his memorably witty and assured one-act play The Twelve Pound Look, first seen in 1918, and now revived by Scotland’s Rapture Theatre as part of a spring season of three lunchtime plays touring to non-big-city venues from Irvine to St. Andrews.

Although Barrie always showed a strong interest in “the woman question”, The Twelve Pound Look is perhaps the most straightforwardly feminist piece he ever wrote, featuring a pompous ass of a man who, at his supreme moment of worldly triumph, has a disconcerting encounter with the woman who left him 14 years before, because she preferred an independent life as a freelance typist to a future as his little wife and helpmeet.

There’s nothing adventurous about Michael Emans’s straightforward production, which features three skilful performances from Julia Watson, Tom Hodgkins and Jo Freer. What’s striking, though, is how timely this 100-year-old play still seems, in its assertion of the empowerment – not only to live as we please, but to define our lives as we please – that comes with economic independence. And if the response in Peebles is any guide, Rapture Theatre’s season of plays-with-lunch seems set for a resounding success, as it moves on to Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, and Harold Pinter’s A Kind Of Alaska.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Good Dog and The Dark have final performances at the Traverse and the Tron respectively, tonight. The Twelve Pound Look is at Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, today, and East Kilbride Arts Centre tomorrow.