Review By Lisa Lanzi
As we begin our plunge into Festival time and Adelaide’s Mad March (hot on the heels of Frantic
February and the still pumping Fringe) artists and audiences are acutely aware how fortunate we are to be able to perform, gather and celebrate in our small part of the world when so many areas are still experiencing the horrors of a pandemic. If you are reading of our artistic adventures from afar, please don’t despair : allow them to inspire you and believe in a future-positive outcome for the arts across our globe.
First out of the Festival ‘gate’, The Boy Who Talked To Dogs is a considered and stirring co-
production for ages twelve and up that will also strongly impact upon adult audiences with themes touching on domestic violence, ADHD, homelessness, loneliness, despair and eventually
determination and resolve. Slightly alarming elements though they may be, they are intricately and sensitively woven through a beautifully crafted narrative peppered with original music and song in an immersive cabaret setting.
The team at Slingsby (in cahoots with State Theatre Company SA) have transformed the Thomas
Edmonds Opera Studio at Adelaide Showgrounds into an Irish pub called the Harp and Hound. Very much a fitting backdrop for a tale based on the true story of Irish lad Martin McKenna and adapted from his hit 2014 memoir. In magical Slingsby style, the work is an intriguing mingling of spoken word, shadow play, projection, original music and song, physical theatre and pure wonder.
Working with Dublin-based Draíocht Arts Centre, this cross-Atlantic creative collaboration includes: Amy Conroy, an actor, playwright and Artistic Director of Dublin’s HotForTheatre who adapted the book for stage, Irish songwriter Lisa O’Neill penning original songs for the production and Irish actor Bryan Burroughs immersing himself in the role of Martin. On the ground in Adelaide we have Andy Packer as director, Victoria Falconer as performer, vocalist and musician, Emma Luker on violin/vocals, Quincy Grant as composer and on stage musician, expert designers Wendy Todd and Ailsa Paterson plus lighting guru Chris Petridis.
Martin’s story in 1960s Limerick is not a cheerful one as he negotiates the world with the inner
energy and impulsiveness ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) bestows upon him. A
violent, alcoholic father, his German-born mother, siblings, school bullies and teachers all
misunderstand Martin and his ways of living in the world. He is proclaimed stupid and useless and a ‘runt’ and in fact named ‘Mr Stupid’ by a particularly vicious teacher. After being banished to the family coal shed (“sleep with the dogs like the animal you are”), his only companions the family German Shepherds Rex and Major, the bullying reaches a point where Martin cannot contain himself. Tragedy strikes and at thirteen, Martin leaves home, eventually settling in a desolate barn with a pack of stray dogs as his family.
Award-winning actor, director and movement director Bryan Burroughs is central to this dramatic telling and his commitment, passion and engagement with the character of Martin is extraordinary in its scope. Burroughs flashes through the large, set in-the-round space and among the audience seated at tables, leaping onto, into and off various aspects of the ingenious set with utter focus and a frenetic, alarming but disciplined energy. Burroughs’s exceptional physicality and presence is on show even in moments of quiet as his characterization shifts between mother, father, teacher and the confused, downtrodden Martin. Burroughs voice and diction is very impressive in a demanding solo role that must be emotionally, vocally and physically draining. My only concern was that at times the sound balance was not ideal and the actor’s (very strong) voice was overshadowed by music or sound effects.
In counterpoint to Burroughs, Victoria Falconer (singer and multi-instrumentalist) shifts between
roles as MC, vocalist, torch-wielding shadow puppeteer and sometime teller/encourager of Martin’s story when he cannot quite speak for himself. Falconer shines giving superb, rich voice (plus occasional piano accordion accompaniment) to composer Lisa O’Neill’s songs throughout the 70 minute work. Both Quincy Grant and Emma Luker also add their vocal and instrumental talents to the musical setting which both complements the narrative and offers some relief from the rising tension and the intensity of the action.
Offering a work that appeals to younger audiences within an international festival is such an
important and inclusive move that looks to the future by engaging and inspiring that demographic. It is also the correct choice to harness all the imaginative dynamism and creative power that Andy Packer’s Slingsby is known for. The Boy Who Talks To Dogs is an event as much as a play and deserves a wide audience to experience this powerful, complex and sensitive production.