views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Dogs of War
The Old Red Lion Theatre
31st May 2015


Richard Southgate and Melanie McHugh as Johnny and Cleoptatra

Photography © Pamela Raith

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. And given half a choice, there's no way Johnny (Richard Southgate) would pick his Mam (Maggie O'Brien). The two have never got on, with Johnny's Dad (Paul Stonehouse) constantly trying to keep the peace. Whilst this may sound familiar, at least to any household which has ever had a teenager grow up in it, Tim Foley's The Dogs of War isn't just about petty household squabbles, it's a black comedy (emphasis on the black) where mental illness is at the core of the storyline.

Johnny's mother comes across as a spiteful woman, but we're never quite sure how much of that behaviour can be attributed to her condition or her "Smarties", and how much really forms part of her true personality. The ambiguity makes us waver between sympathy and hate, much in the same way her own loved ones react to her. To put it mildly, she's hard work. O'Brien delivers an exhaustingly accurate portrayal of a woman whose mood can change in the blink of an eye. It's certainly hinted that Mam has always tried to do the best for her son, but that her skewed perception of reality has meant her intentions have never really matched up with her actions. Mental illness is cruel, and whilst we can understand why Johnny despises his mother, we just find the whole situation horribly sad. There's a seeming lack of compassion on both sides.

With Johnny's own grip on reality starting to fade in the same way as his mother's, the production can get quite surreal at times and perhaps a little confusing. Director Tom O'Brien uses this ever-shifting reality to bring out the comedic side to the production, which to be sure, is needed. The visiting student's delusions of grandeur are exacerbated by the arrival of Cleopatra (Melanie McHugh), a voice in his head which urges him on to do great things. Cleo suddenly popping out of nowhere is an amusing image and when we reflect that she's a manifestation of a breakdown in progress, it's easy to feel guilty for laughing.

Paul Stonehouse and Maggie O'Brien as Dad and Mam

Photography © Pamela Raith

McHugh also plays local farmer Frances who becomes a potential lifeline for the drowning family. As we see Dad desperately trying to grasp an offer of friendship, we also see how Mam tries her best to push Frances away and further increase the household's isolation. This isn't an attempt by Foley to explain how to cope with mental illness, rather the play is simply a tool to get people thinking about how it impacts on others. There are no solutions, yet there is awareness, wrapped up in a cushion of humour. The mind games that Mam and Johnny play, especially with each other - the horrific realisation on Johnny's part that he's becoming the person he doesn't want to be, and there's no way to halt the transformation. There some moments which make us chuckle, particularly in the beginning when we're still trying to unravel the plot however it is overwhelmingly bleak.

The venue's walls have been brought forward to make the intimate stage even smaller. We're presented with a very ordinary looking house - not dirty as such, just a little grubby around the edges, with slightly wonky shelves and far too much clutter. It's no showhouse and it never has been. Set and costume designer Libby Todd creates a contrast between the mundane real world and the extraordinary glamour of the Queen of the Nile. And the shift in moods is heralded by the David Gregory's sound design and Tom Kitney's lighting design, which are most often unsettling.

The Dogs of War won't help you deal with mental illness - it's not meant to be an informative fact sheet with tips and tricks. It will open a dialogue, and with 25% of us suffering from a mental health issue each year, it's important to acknowledge that invisible medical problems can be just as serious as the things we can see. By the end of the production, we're even less sure what was real and what was imagined - the bewilderment giving us a startlingly glimpse into what it's like to lose your mind.

The Dogs of War ran from 26th May to 20th June 2015 at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)

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