Pros: Witty and smart dialogue with well-built characters.
Cons: Meandering pace and a little too preoccupied with philosophy over action.
When I realised that The Dogs of War was set in Ireland (Northern Ireland to be precise, which “isn’t even proper Ireland” as one character complains) and took place within a suffocating domestic space, I was sold. Clearly, like me writer Tim Foley is a fan of Martin McDonagh. Like the celebrated British-Irish playwright, Foley draws complex and flawed characters and creates a claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, an effect heightened by the simple but effective design and use of lighting.
Although Foley’s setup is wonderfully ambient, and his depiction of a family in crisis is chilling, the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. It tells the story of the Herming family, who moved from the North of England to rural Northern Ireland to help stabilise the volatile mental health of the matriarch (Maggie O’Brien). When son Jonny (Richard Southgate) returns from university to the monotony of rural life and a father (Paul Stonehouse) downtrodden by his role as carer, he begins to unravel; his own signs of mental instability coming to the surface, including the troubling appearance of a Northern Irish Cleopatra (Melanie McHugh). Unfortunately the momentum of the story never really gets going and its focus jumps about.
Performances from the cast were difficult to fault with each treading the fine line between delusion and humanity. Even O’Brien’s terrifyingly aggressive Mam has moments of vulnerability as her deteriorating mental health isolates her family and the care of her husband becomes increasingly controlling. Stonehouse’s portrayal of a man crumbling under the pressure of caring for his sick wife is strong, playing the victim and the bully with equal power. The dynamic created between a desperate Jonny and a luscious Cleopatra is both exciting and disturbing, but the dialogue feels lacking in substance and frustratingly preoccupied with philosophical reflection.
The use of lighting in the show was interesting but I’m not sure I always understood its purpose. Non-naturalistic lighting states were used to create ‘moments’ that punctuated the scenes. I vaguely guessed they were used as thematic links but it felt a bit strange, especially as sometimes the same lighting state was used for scene transitions as these ‘moments’. The idea was there but the execution was still a little fuzzy.
The Dogs of War is an entertaining show with some strong dialogue and complex, intriguing characters. It’s worth seeing but it feels like it needs a little work on story development for it to be truly gripping from start to finish. At the heart of this show there is a story about a family struggling with mental health that really need telling, sadly this play only scratches its surface.
Author: Tim Foley
Director: Tom O’Brien
Designer: Libby Todd
Producer: Robin Rayner and David Adkin for TREMers
Booking Until: 20 June 2015
Box Office: 0844 412 4307
Booking Link: http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/venue/old-red-lion-theatre-london-tickets/OLDREDLEIH/901?brand=oldredliontheatre