After seven months with no live theatre, it felt like a miracle to be part of the audience that gathered outside The Lowry on a dark October evening to watch Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show.
Imitating the Dog’s new touring work – created with the current pandemic scenario in mind – is a short piece that draws on multiple genres and theatre formats, from street theatre and Victorian circus freak shows to modern crime dramas and slasher movies.
This mash-up of genres is reflected in the show’s imaginative design, which literally unfolds from the back of a parked white van – a modern twist on the travelling players. Blinking light bulb strings along the sides of the stage give a run-down carnival feel. The performers slip on and off through white vertical office blinds, which double as screens for impressive AV projections; these elaborate video designs by Simon Wainwright often feature Tarantino-esque levels of bloody violence. Cheap masks, dolls and PVC costumes give proceedings a slightly kinky, freak show vibe.
The story told by Dr Blood and his henchwomen is a vaguely political satire that sees three allegorical figures – “The Mayor” (played by a performer in a Boris Johnson mask), “The Constable” (whose red wig and accent combine – perhaps not deliberately – to resemble Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner) and “The Headmaster” (who doesn’t resemble anyone) – plotting to get their mega-casino built on the outskirts of a mythical Northern town and bypass objecting councillors. Once it’s been made clear that these three are violent, lying, heartless crooks, we are able to witness their gruesome unravelling with no sympathy, and it is quite cathartic to see corrupt authority figures get their comeuppance.
Unfortunately, there is far too much going on for a three-hander show that lasts just 30 minutes. Exposition is packed in at the start to establish the characters, but the pacing is slowed by some odd choices; there are songs – one original, one a comedy cover of ‘Lady in Red’ – large chunks of dialogue that are overlong and even some promising moments of action that outstay their welcome, such as the opening montage, which follows one of the narrators as they tear round the town hall in pursuit of some letters.
The three cast members flit between being their narrator characters – mysterious ‘night watchers,’ enactors of justice who only identify themselves as such in the final scene – the allegorical characters of the story and puppeteers, manoeuvring dolls that frequently represent The Mayor, The Constable and The Headmaster. This puppeteering is usually done before cameras positioned at the side of the stage; their live feed appears on screens behind the performers so that characters can have conversations across the two mediums. Like much of the design of the show, it is clever and intriguing, but it’s also often disorientating for the audience.
It can’t be denied that the three performers – Laura Atherton, Keicha Greenidge and Matt Prendergast – give it their all, switching between multiple roles, dancing, singing and selling everything with old-fashioned horror melodrama. But the show itself would benefit from being simplified, perhaps with fewer characters and twists in the plot.
However, it is wonderful to see real, live theatre being done outdoors, socially distanced, in a way that works for and doesn’t compromise the chosen show. The Lowry, Leeds Playhouse and Imitating the Dog all deserve credit for showing how it can be done, and I only hope we can see more.★ ★ ★
Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show from Imitating the Dog was reviewed at The Lowry. The show is currently touring until 24 October 2020 with more dates to be announced. In line with current government guidelines, audiences will have a limited capacity with social distancing in place.
17 Oct – The Lowry, Salford
20-21 Oct – Lancaster Square, Lancaster Arts
23-24 Oct – Belgrade Square, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry