The term ‘Victoriana’ gets bandied about a lot, and when it does it is usually in relation to either some sexy laced-up booties and pin-tucked blouses on the catwalk, or a simpering, ringletted child in a glossy late-era Millais. But there is the other version of Victoriana that comes across in things like the BBC’s bizarre Christmas production, Dickensian, in which everything Charlie every wrote was squidged together like soggy leftovers and offered up as a foul-smelling brown stew. It’s the Victoriana based around cheeky flower-selling girls in Covent Garden, men in dirty clothes getting their heads smashed in at the local boozer and rats, rats, rats.
This version of Victoriana, the dirt and grime and slums, is meant to be much more realistic than Sargent’s happy children illuminated in the twilight and surrounded by lilies. And, as Henry Mayhew would attest, to a degree it probably is. Yet it is also, in its own way, as hopelessly romantic and probably inaccurate as any understanding of the era that only focuses on fig leaves on statues and the fashionableness of tartan. The Dog and the Elephant, performed at the Bristol Old Vic, latches on to this second type of Victoriana with all the force of a bare-knuckle boxer gouging the eyes out of his grubby-waistcoated opponent. At times this enables it to conjure romance and genuine tenderness for the scrapping protagonist, but at others it shatters into glittery shards of cliché, which flutter prettily, but unmemorably, away.
Visually, this is an arresting show with the one character pacing around a sparse stage of wooden boxes lit just with those light bulbs with fancy filaments favoured by many a hipster bar of late. The orange glow casts Bendigo Barlow (Jack Johns) in constant shadow and hints at fire, both the one yet to come in the narrative and the one Bendigo’s baptised namesake, Abednego, is said in the bible to have emerged from unharmed. In the same way that Robert Downey, Jr. bulks up pre-Iron Man (apparently involving gaining 25 pounds of pure muscle), Johns demonstrates an impressive dedication to the role by having a torso that could advertise protein shakes (they drank a lot of those in the Victorian slums). When he says he has killed several men and slept with many women, you pretty much believe him on spec.
And this isn’t just me being a perv. His body is important because the narrative turns on the dichotomy between his physical brutishness, exploited by others, and his inner tenderness, which is dented by heartbreak and leads to him befriending animals like the Chris Packham of yesteryear. That Bendigo, he might have killed a man, but he sure is cute with the elephants.
Where the production falls down is perhaps in the script. Laden with workaday metaphors and delivered with a bit of cockney swagger, his tales are at times almost fairy tale-like. This is both its best and worst attribute. The imagery is so easy to slide into, full of gypsy caravans, stolen glances from bountiful-but-coarse maidens and exotic animals in crates, that it simultaneously evokes a barrow-load of references and nothing at all. Fleeting glimpses of Cider with Rosie float by before colliding with the glass panes of the Crystal Palace housing endless specimens from the New World. But at times its all seems too much like a Pinterest montage of pretty images romanticising the back streets of V&A’s London without any crunch. Moments intended for impact rely too heavily on saying either ‘cock’ or ‘fuck’ at a loud volume, and the cheeky-chappy ‘I like a good fight with the missus and the chance to call her a whore’ act feels like a cheap way of getting a laugh and a patronising view of working class Victorian masculinity.
The Dog and the Elephant was in fact most powerful when it was at its most silent. When Johns stopped pacing quite so much and the shock-value ‘the vicar had his cock out’ moments were dropped in favour of a quieter approach. The Laurie Lee memories hiding with her in the long grass and the image of the vulnerable man who cannot say no to fighting on behalf of others. The basic story, design and main character are sufficiently interesting enough to claim the audience’s attention without the need to resort to vulgar Victoriana-isms.
The Dog and the Elephant was on at the Bristol Old Vic. Click here for their programme.