Tag Archives: Imitating the Dog

Mist Opportunity


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 15th April, 2015


Oldham Coliseum is touring this adaptation of a Susan Hill novel in a bid to recreate the atmosphere and no doubt the lucrative success of the long-(still!)-running stage version of her earlier novel, The Woman in Black. Like that version, adapter Ian Kershaw uses narration and story-within-a-story to set the scene. Hill’s language, coupled with Barney George’s striking costumes evoke the Victorian period, and that works very well. Unfortunately, the production is dominated by the set. Ostensibly a black box with sections that open and close, changes of location and mood are signalled by visual effects, animated projections by a company called imitating the dog.  The images are attractive in themselves and useful for speedy depiction of a scene but I feel there is just too many of them, distracting from the action and some of the wordier passages of narration. Consequently, I am not caught up in the atmosphere and am feeling the lack of suspense. Director Kevin Shaw relies heavily on sudden loud noises to give us a jolt but on the whole the scenes are too short and bitty to permit any real build-up of tension.

Paul Warriner is our hero, a young man seeking information about his family’s mysterious past. He makes a dashing gentleman – perhaps there is too much dashing around! Jack Lord is the ‘reader’, a narrator who takes over the exposition every now and then. A lovely, rich voice but he tells the tale as if it is his, rather than reading it and being gripped by it for the first time in the book he holds as a prop. Martin Reeve crops up in a range of roles but, with all the comings and goings, I find it difficult to keep track of who is whom – another distraction from the plot. Sarah Eve and Caroline Harding play the female roles but there is not all that much for them to do.

There is a ghost popping on and off – some appearances are more effective than others – but the resolution seems rushed. And so I come away disappointed. Less of a moving storybook approach would give the story a chance. Scenes need time to breathe if they are to give us a scare, but I will say Lorna Munden’s sound design goes a long way to compensate for the show’s shortcomings. An emphasis on sound rather than visuals might have been a better way to go.


Through A Lens Darkly


The REP Studio, Birmingham, Wednesday 19th November, 2014


Oh, good: yet another First World War drama. I haven’t seen one of those for at least a week. In serious danger of combat fatigue, I approach Imitating The Dog’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, based on his own experiences. What sets this production apart is its innovative and inventive mode of presentation.

The cast arrives with flashlights. It is as though they have come to a disused hospital. As they prepare (which involves getting into costume, or setting up TV cameras) a discordant overture plays, not far removed from an orchestra tuning up. We get a sense that something is about to begin…

Laura Hopkins’s set serves as every location in the story, augmented by Simon Wainwright’s video projections on the walls and through the windows. But also the surfaces, including screens that usually provide temporary privacy for patients, become cinema screens – live feeds from the cameras are projected all over the set, giving multiple viewpoints, and providing some striking visual counterpoints. For example, with the main actors’ backs turned, their faces projected in profile on the hospital screens address each other. The effect is striking but somehow emphasises the disconnection between the characters, who are supposedly falling in love. And that sums up the production as a whole: the use of technology adds interest for the audience but also keeps us at a remove from the action.

Handsome Jude Monk McGowan is Frederic Henry, a dapper American soldier who speaks his narration directly to camera; his face his cast large on the back wall. It’s like reportage – a war correspondent delivering huge chunks of Hemingway. McGowan is good as the pent-up protagonist. Everything comes together for the sequence in which he is injured in an explosion and transported in horrific conditions on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Here we have actors and technology working together for a powerful theatrical moment. It’s a graphic novel come to life.

In other scenes, it’s like watching a film being shot and screened at the same time. The exposure of the production’s artificialities serves to keep us at a distance so we may reflect on characters’ discourses, such as what might happen if one side just stopped fighting? But that same artificiality also keeps us apart from the emotional aspects of the play. The love story is unconvincing – I think Laura Atherton’s Catherine might play better with the clipped delivery of Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Here, voices are amplified not projected. Mouths on screen don’t quite match with the words we hear, like a poorly dubbed movie. It all helps to keep us out.

Having to stay on their marks, the actors are sometimes hampered, sometimes liberated. Small moments of intimacy are splashed up the walls, but these can feel intrusive rather than revealing – we have been trained to be dispassionate observers by this point, and so the emotional climax of the tale, which comes not from the War but from their domestic lives afterwards, is not the punch in the guts it ought to be.

There’s a lot to take in. It’s a wordy play, sometimes in Italian with surtitles, and sometimes it feels over-narrated. The visuals are ever-changing, there is music playing, and words and letters swimming on and off the walls. Initially, you can lose track, but when you get used to it, there are some wonderful set pieces when everything clicks into place, and co-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks have all the elements working in concert.

It’s an original approach but unfortunately in this case it is ultimately unsatisfying and yet Hemingway’s stark message comes across, when the cameras are switched off and Henry dismisses the other characters from the set. For what have they survived the War? Death is going to visit everyone anyway. It’s not only war that is futile but life itself.


Star of stage and screen: Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic (Photo: Ed Waring)

Star of stage and screen: Jude Monk McGowan as Frederic (Photo: Ed Waring)