Theatre in Wales

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National Theatre Hits the City

At National Theatre

Frantic Assembly & National Theatre of Wales- Little Dogs , Patti Pavilion, Swansea , May-12-12
At National Theatre by Frantic Assembly & National Theatre of Wales- Little Dogs A collaboration with Frantic Assembly was in National Theatre of Wales’ sights from the first sketch of its artistic programme. That it has taken three years to come about is testimony to the company’s busy schedule. The Patti Pavilion is a minute or so from Swansea’s university campus. There is a touch of fable to this thrilling production that Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett should depart as students, with a “Look Back in Anger” behind them, and return eighteen years later under the auspices of national theatre.

The second night performance of “Little Dogs” has some nice ironies to it. Outside, it is a rare bright evening, for 2012, which has brought the joggers and dog-walkers onto the beach. Inside, half of the Patti Pavilion is given over to a sleek, superior dining space, the Raj Patti. The city-wards half is a dance area, a high space held up on a double row of pillars, and a popular choice for wedding parties. A Friday night has brought out a good crop of restaurant diners. Seated in the quiet dining ambience with its sunset view of Mumbles they would be amazed by what is unfolding beyond the wall of the Raj Patti’s bar and kitchen. “Little Dogs” is physically wild and ecstatic, thematically jagged and amoral, aesthetically iconoclastic and compelling.

It is a promenade performance. The fourteen performers, in hoodies, trench coats, micro-skirts, guide the audience from one part of the floor area to another. There are none of those quietly solicitous guides with their yellow armbands. The cast surges past, they nudge and touch, they will hold a viewer’s arm.

Tim Dickel’s design has turned the space into a collection of disconnected urban tableaus, a wrecked and abandoned Renault, a rubbish heap, a line of graffiti-spattered toilets. The choreography for the group dancing is electrifying. Speech is intermittent and subordinate to physical movement. A major portion of the text is given to tips and hints on romantic pursuit. If male, just never be seen with a Malibu and diet coke. The effect that ownership of a car has on a woman, or so the script claims, is unrepeatable on an open-to-all-eyes website.

Love here, whether cross-gender or same-sex, has a single-minded, aggressive predation to it. Sex, gay and straight, has little finesse or affection. A couple of police suddenly emerge, none too keen on public toilets being commandeered. It is a gougingly telling portrayal of a sex-saturated, self-serving hedonism where much of love’s levity and delight have been discarded.

This depiction of young peoples’ inner selves is true but true in the sense that a Diane Arbus photograph is true. It is an image that is true to itself in the particular, rather than the universal. “Little Dogs” is uniquely itself, but there are cadences of “Skins”, before it plummeted. One actor, deliberately or not, has an appearance close to Naomi in “Skins” third series. As a picture it encapsulates the fearlessness, the openness, the sense of invulnerability that it is to be young. It lingers little on the underside. By coincidence, Radio Four featured a programme on teenage depression the same day. That programme’s sympathetic content is echoed in “Little Dogs”’ opening image. A silent Sian Phillips is in a cramped living room with a youngster. He is spike-haired, anxious, restlessly flicking a lighter on and off. He is true; his like are visible in every town centre.

Carolyn Downing is sound designer. Music is by Hybrid, who are Michael Truman, Charlotte James and Chris Healings. It is a devised work; Naomi Said and Lisa Wells-Turner are respectively assistant and emerging directors. The credits for “Little Dogs” include Mabs Noor and all at the Pavilion. Sybil Crouch contributes a crisp background note for the programme. It contains a line of self-deprecation, that is not necessary. Midwifery is the least self-advertising of professions, but it is a role of honour. The romantic view of artistry is commonly that of a lone, unfettered energy of inevitable destiny. It happens, but not often; just as much it is the right word, support, hint or suggestion that matters.

With performances in Connah’s Quay this April National Theatre of Wales has been just about everywhere it is possible to go. On beach and mountain, in hall and stute, in ancient Greece and pre-revolutionary Russia it has worked well. Urban modernity has been the area where the productions have carried least conviction. It may partly be the nature of a community that lacks a mega-city. As in a Norway or Austria, countries with lopsidedly large neighbours, Wales has cities but there are few urban spots where a view of hill or water is more than a few minutes’ walk away. The sheer enclosedness of a concentrated urban space isn’t there. Whatever, “Little Dogs” hits it in a way that Bridgend and Butetown didn’t, for reasons are that fairly simple.

Sian Phillips is an irregular presence but she provides a climax from on high with a last visual flourish. The creators have been part-spurred by their own memories of the place. “In Mumbles” says Scott Graham “there was an upfront energy- it felt dangerous but good times were being had. People came from far and wide.” Dylan Thomas is the ostensible direct source. The spirit of his “ugly lovely town” pervades. It is a habit for the living to foist opinions on the departed that they might or might not have held in life. Nonetheless, I think the poet would have loved “Little Dogs”; I did.



Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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