good dog – Traverse Theatre

Arinzé Kene’s monologue good dog, first produced, in 2017 has been resurrected and is currently on tour, this time performed by Kwaku Mills.

The monologue follows the musings, boyhood, and coming of age of the infuriatingly named protagonist ‘Boy’. Still, he certainly is endearing. We first meet him aged thirteen, a vulnerable secondary schooler, relentlessly bullied by his peers, recently abandoned by his father, and yet naïvely determined to remain the titular ‘good dog’. As he grows older and the bike reward he dreams of never materialises, Boy is forced to reconsider what ‘being good’ does and should entail. He comes to the un-enlightening conclusion that being good ‘is not always easy’ and is never objective. In the second act, Boy is older and slightly more street-smart, so his perceptions of ‘goodness’ become more nuanced. As the act develops, predictable tragedies bombard him, mounting rapidly and becoming near-comic melodrama.

The text is relentlessly written in the present tense. This makes it jarring, jumpy, and exhausting. It is also repetitive and far, far, far too long. Watching felt like nodding obligingly to an overly talkative acquaintance. The production assumes its audience to be completely un-astute; we are faced with the same plot points over and over. Perhaps this is a comment on the cyclical nature of Boy’s life and community, but it was nevertheless unnecessary.

Mills’ performance is driven by youthful energy but his characterisation is irresolute. As the second act opens, Mills, sitting astride Amelia Jane Hankins’s charred cuboid set design, seems temporarily older, his voice deeper, body language more self-assured, but he cannot maintain this and quickly slips back into the ‘Boy’ of Act One.

Through Boy, we meet the admittedly well-drawn inhabitants of his multicultural Tottenham street. He observes the poverty, infidelity, bullying, aspiration, and resentment which define his claustrophobic community. All but one father on the street is absent. The sense of abandonment is palpable: abandonment of morals, of each other, of self-belief.

The piece is contained entirely in this world. Significantly, the police are the only outsiders to enter it. This fact comes to a violent and chaotic head as Boy and the rest of his community become involved in protests against institutionalised racism in British police forces after one of their community is murdered. This scene has significantly more gravity than the rest of the piece and makes important observations about the consequences of injustice in an abandoned community. The protest ultimately leads to Boy’s liberation from his cycle of attempted goodness to face the nuances of his community.

There are some good moments in the piece, mostly due to the quality of Zoe Spurr’s lighting design. Equally, in spite of the stress-inducing instability of the set on which Mills perched so precariously, the constant presence of a foreboding, charred abstract shape was successfully striking. Equally, there is many a charming, neatly observed element: the ‘what-what’ girls who are replaced by the next generation; the ‘nah-nah’ girls who are instantly recognisable.

The play concludes by retuning to a recurring, heavy-handed metaphor which aligns two warring dogs (Little Dog and Big Dog) to Boy’s struggle against bullies. The metaphor was overt when it was first mentioned 30 minutes in/ Two hours later, the attempted profundity of a mirrored plot was eyebrow raising. The ever-bullied Little Dog (‘Boy’, wink wink) finally loses her temper with the neighbours’ growly Big Dog and attacks him, just as Boy does.

Absolutely all loose ends are tied up in some manner. Every story on the street has a conclusive ending, satisfactory or otherwise. For Boy, it seems that he has at least made sense of his world. However, we are not challenged to question this, and the ubiquity of the new equilibrium is difficult to believe.


PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre

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Laura Hounsell

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