Though hers is ostensibly a solo show, Victoria Melody is never alone on stage. She shares the space with her beloved basset hound, the Major Tom of the title, a magnificent beast; a creature of melancholic dignity – which he maintains even when being reluctantly made to parade around the stage. Rumpled and stumpy, his snout is framed by a pair of silken conker-coloured ears; he regards a proffered dog treat as if it had disappointed him in some profound way before curling up on his cushion and falling asleep, a state in which he spends most of the show.
The presence of her canine companion adds an extra element of liveness to the piece – every mildly inquisitive lift of his head, every tentative stretch and lumber into a more comfortable corner of the stage, is met with coos and giggles from the audience. This is never disruptive though; his presence is a pleasure, it adds to the show’s charm and warmth, and proves rather fitting in a piece which is, after all, about the culture of display.
Melody is interested in tribes, their codes, rules and rituals. She immerses herself in worlds, allows her life and her work to intersect and overlap in interesting ways. In the case of Major Tom, it’s the world of championship dog show handling she’s exploring while at the same time charting her active involvement in the beauty pageant circuit. She spent a year as Mrs Brighton, attending functions, cutting ribbons, teetering in vertiginous heels across rain-swept car parks, jiving in a tiara at Brighton Pride, before going on to compete for the title of Mrs England. Major Tom meanwhile proves such a hit on the amateur dog show circuit that Melody decides to enter him for Crufts.
The two strands of the show feed on one another. Melody juxtaposes her own physical transformation into beauty queen material – hair extensions, spray tan, endless sessions in the gym to shift the weight she had purposefully piled on over the ‘best Christmas ever’ – with her attempts to break into professional dog show handling with Major Tom. Both are subject to a ridiculous amount of physical scrutiny, prodded and poked, assessed and found wanting. He is deemed to have too big a rib cage, while a plastic surgeon tells Melody her mouth is upside down.
Melody intersperses accounts of her experiences with video footage – including a hilarious montage in which both herself and Major Tom are subject to an intense and somewhat extreme grooming regime. At times there seems to be a dash of Louis Theroux to her approach, though she gets far more deeply immersed and enmeshed in the worlds she’s exploring than he does, rather than remaining a wry outsider. This makes the show more personal, but also in some ways less bladed. The people she meets along the way – the beauticians, her fellow contestants, the various “Brians” of the basset hound world – remain sketches, briefly glimpsed, rather than emerging as characters in their own right. The piece focuses more on the codes and processes, the subtle hierarchies, rather than the people who participate and their motivations for doing so. It’s much less exploitative and uncomfortable as a result but also creates a degree of distance. We’re viewing these universes through her eyes, through her lens.
While I found myself wanting more analysis, I recognise that’s not what Melody was out to do here. She engages with these worlds on their own terms and presents us with their quirks and absurdities as she encounters them, without passing judgement, without drawing conclusions, leaving it all out there for the audience to digest. And as an exercise in light-shining, in briefly granting us a glimpses into shadowed and closed corners of British life, the show is never less than engaging. Melody is an affable, generous performer, funny and honest – and of course she has Major Tom as her stage-mate and sidekick, whose very presence – even while dozing, which he does for roughly 83% of the evening – is brightening.