‘Dog Days’ by Annie Hulley at Theatre 503

11th March, 2014

‘We all play by basic rules, only some are born with a different basic set of rules…’

‘Dog days’ is an aptly titled, referring to a period of relationship stagnation as two couples lay themselves bare in Annie Hulley’s  ninety minutes of dark comedy and edgy unreality.

Our home is the most intimate, secure space we can inhabit, yet the scene opens to a literally beige existence of Cate and John.  They are locked into a Daily Mail, Middle England routine and empty Pinteresque exchanges.  Using just one set, Sophia Simensky reinforces what has been shared for many years; patterns of territory, privacy, and memories of the past enshrined in objects such as owl ornaments and a photograph of their only son. Hoping to get a buyer for Cate and John’s home is a temporary solution to domestic friction.

Their life takes an unexpected turn with the intrusion of Tony and Hayley as passing potential house buyers. It is not the direction of the turn that shocks their system or world, but the turn itself. Enter the wide eyed, newly pregnant Hayley, (effortlessly interpreted by Lashana Lynch) whose unstoppable one liners are disarmingly hilarious. Within minutes she has impromptu suggestions for uses for garlic as a vaginal suppository  to managing breast implants. Hulley’s creation of a comic, understated, black female South Londoner is intelligently observed. Alongside is Hayley’s East End bully boyfriend, Tony, whose insistent charm eventually wields menace and intimidation.

As the play becomes almost farcical, the physical space is used to negotiate power imbalances: John hopes to re-establish another life and for Tony, it is a bargaining tool to expel intense anger.  Peter Bramhill’s Tony is plausibly Kray twin natured – a ‘dark side was formed in a cupboard’ – and, yet an oversimplification perhaps of how his childhood explains his current dysfunctional manner. Less well drawn is  Cate’s smug, conservative husband, John (Jonathan Oliver) whose eventual revelations force us to re-evaluate our first impressions of him.

A sense of empowerment eventually develops as Cate silently accepts John’s demise but she ends in the same state of denial as when we first meet her. Annie Hulley, the author  who plays her character, engages us convincingly throughout from her frustration to false liberation.

Under Lisa Cagnacci’s slick direction, there is narrative continuity during scene changes. True, on occasion, the script becomes uneven and lapses into cliche. Nonethless, Hulley has achieved a splendid debut play in her drive to create more roles for maturer and black actresses.