The Dog and The Elephant was first presented as part of the Ferment Fortnight in January 2015. Ferment gives artists the chance to try out new ideas and engage in a dialogue with the audience in order to develop their work. This show must have been well received as it has returned to the Bristol Old Vic studio, but I must admit I was dubious. A play about a bare-knuckle fighter and his friendship with an elephant? However, what I’ve frequently found is that those plays I am not really expecting to like often turn out to be little gems, and this small but perfectly formed piece was was no exception.
The Dog and The Elephant is a one-man monologue presented by newly fledged theatre company Cuckoo Collective and written and directed by Matt Grinter. It tells the story of Victorian era bare-knuckle boxer Bendigo Barlow, played by Jack Johns. His family and his community view Bendigo as strange and threatening. He earns his nickname ‘The Dog’ because of the tics and barks that he just cannot hold in, a sure sign that he has Tourette’s Syndrome. This is a difficult condition to manage, even more so in less enlightened times. His mother’s indiscretions with the local priest lead to him being rejected by his father and he ends up as an outcast. Taken in by the travelling Romany people who recognize his raw skill as a fighter, Bendigo finds a form of kinship and acceptance with them, despite still always being viewed as an outsider. Circumstances lead to him being cast out from this community too, but he finds a strange kind of salvation on joining a travelling menagerie and forging a friendship with the elephant. This premise still sounds somewhat unlikely, but the writing and telling of it is magnificent.
Jack Johns is a great talent, the kind of actor you feel very grateful to be able to see reasonably early on in his career before the venues he is filling are less intimate. His portrayal of a man with Tourette’s was subtle and clever. It is clear he has worked hard with movement coach Anna Croxson to make it authentic and believable, when it could so easily have been hammy and predictable. We shouldn’t really like his character much; he has killed many men and broken many more bones. He can be vicious and cruel, and is more than a little rough around the edges. But his vulnerability comes through quietly, his need for love is clear and you just can’t help feeling empathy for him, even if you find some of the things he does abhorrent.
My main fear for this piece was that I was unable to envision how a serious story could be made out of an examination of the friendship between a man and an elephant. I was concerned it might feel a little twee or silly. However, the actual telling of this part of the story was beautiful. Clearly Bendigo is a man who has not had much acceptance because of his condition, but here was another soul who ended up trusting and loving him wholly, despite making him work for those things every step of the way. The ending is not a happy one, but I did not leave the studio feeling dampened, as the story was so good.
The Dog and The Elephant is on at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6th Feb. See it if you can, its an easy and enjoyable 50 minutes. If you can’t then you should look out for the Ferment Fortnight in the Autumn, when their latest project The Rat Will Eat It’s Young will be given the spotlight.
Review by Karen Blake