The combination of elegant prose, a unique venue and a magnetic solo performance makes The Dog And The Elephant a memorable experience. It tells the story of Bendigo Barlow, a Victorian era street fighter born with no advantages beyond his gift for violence. The story ducks and weaves with his punches, taking us from a broken family home to a gypsy camp to a spectacular menagerie, complete with the elephant of the title. Despite running at under an hour, this rather extraordinary narrative plays out in rich detail, creating a story populated by fascinating characters filled with the sort of light and shade you would usually expect from a much longer production.
Without the assistance of a large cast to play off – it is only him and a solo violinist on stage throughout – or extensive set, it is down to Jack Johns, as Barlow, to create these colourful worlds and he delivers in compelling fashion. His physicalisation at all times suggests barely contained power, even as he smiles and charms. He is at once brutal and soft, expecting our sympathy and receiving it despite describing committing revolting acts of violence. Suffering from severe physical and vocal tics that suggest a disorder such as Tourettes, Barlow is a tragic figure, victimised by the ignorance of his age. The audience is thrilled by his personal victories and crushed by his defeats and his relationship with Ina the elephant is as beautiful a love story as I’ve seen on stage in some time.
Though it was originally developed in association with the Bristol Old Vic, the show’s current iteration is a part of the fabulous Vault Festival, an annual event occurring in the tunnels under Waterloo station with one of the more varied arts programmes around. In order to enter the Crescent, the room in which the show takes place, one must first walk through the dark corridors and pumping bar that make up The Vaults, passing empty bird cages and bursts of art. Despite this (organised) chaos and excitement (and the trains that rumble overhead periodically throughout the performance), this production is powerful enough to transport the audience to a different era.
My only real criticism is that the ending feels slightly rushed. The eponymous elephant appears a little late in the show and is such an interesting character in her own right, as well as a major presence in the life of Barlow, that it would have been brilliant to “see” more of her. After being the focus of the prologue, by the time she appears in the narrative proper, the build up to her arrival has become intense. It would benefit the production to give her part in the story more breathing room, particularly as they are able to create her in the space in so many interesting ways.
The Dog And The Elephant is a beautiful example of collaboration, with writer/director Matt Grinter and actor Jack Johns working together to create an compelling experience. The humour and tragedy they manage to convey in a short space of time is masterful and the complex mood of the piece will stay with you long after Johns has left the stage.