The tone of the performance is set when I’m met on entry by a beaming steward, all warmth and reassurance. She directs me to empty seats and offers sunglasses and earplugs. Not your usual production, you might be thinking. But all becomes clear; she addresses the audience before the play starts and clarifies that this is a relaxed performance, meaning we can come and go, use the earplugs or sunglasses, do whatever we need to feel comfortable.
This is a great touch (and still all-too rare), but nothing more than you’d expect, given the content of the play. Glitch is a one-hander, with Krystina Nellis as our heroine Kelly, and Kelly is autistic – or, in her words, ‘weird. Diagnosably weird’.
Kelly is a likeable protagonist, trapped in a small town where it’s still ok to call someone living with autism a ‘psycho’, or ‘retard’. Nellis brings her to life well, including the odd amusingly wry remark and some lovely moments of warmth; Kelly’s experiences of losing herself to dance and singing in the questionable local nightclub, for example, are especially touching. She also handles the painful unfolding of Kelly’s grief well, and with sweetness; her dad goes quickly from being ‘fine’ to very, very not fine, and we see this all through Kelly’s straightforward, practical viewpoint. When she sits in a corner with her console and plays video games during his wake, we’re there with her and it’s clear it’s not only not ‘weird’: this makes sense.
Glitch is also something of an homage to video gaming and the communities around it. Kelly finds solace in games and, as the play continues, a true friend. This gaming connection is gorgeously brought to life by the screen on stage, which not only brings us Kelly’s words in real time but also the characters, rendered perfectly, and with changing backdrops (an affordance not otherwise possible in this black box studio), in 90s dot matrix-game style. It’s a lovely touch and enlivens the performance with just the occasional distraction when Nellis deviates wildly from the on-screen text.
This is one element that does, in the end, undermine the show a little; Nellis seems unsteady with the script, sometimes stumbling or repeating. The informal, chatty tone of Kelly’s delivery allows much of this to be absorbed into the performance, but occasionally it feels unnerving. And the narrative drive here can feel a little rambling, with the content perhaps demanding a little less than the full hour it’s given. Tightness would help let some of the funnier, and more powerful, moments really sing.
But all told, we leave on good terms with the small town of Sutward’s favourite ‘weirdo’. For, as the play asks, who gets to say what ‘normal’ is anyway – and why should we care?
“despite flashes of real humanity, clever staging and spirited performances, we risk feeling underwhelmed by a narrative that feels easy to predict”
The Dog Walker brings us two characters at sea in the lonely but oppressive expanse of New York. We meet our pair during a heatwave, but by the end, the storm has broken – in more ways than one.
Victoria Yeates is Keri; bitter, drunk, raging. Herbert Doakes (Andrew Dennis) is the unsuspecting dog walker who comes to collect her Pekingese, Wolfgang. Wolfgang is, it transpires, an ex-Pekingese. So begins a torrid ride, as we see these lost souls navigate around and towards one another.
Writer Paul Minx is focusing on the brokenness of so many people and so much of city life, and the flows of the power dynamics between – and grief of – Keri and Herbert are cleverly handled, ebbing tidally through the production. Minx tells us that the character of Keri is based on someone he recalls from his time living in New York in the 90s, a woman who ‘lived in a sleeping bag under the stairs leading up to my local Chinese laundry… Every morning she’d get up, fold her sleeping bag, and begin her day’s screaming’. This perhaps explains some of the complexity of Keri’s character, and the challenges too; we see her behaving erratically but the play misses a chance to really scrutinise mental illness, grief and loneliness in lieu of a female character who lacks shades of grey until the closing scenes.
Keri shouts – a lot. She cusses and rages at Doakes, who, at first at least, accepts her treatment with an implacability born of his devout faith. Both characters, who are hard to like at the start albeit for very different reasons, melt into softness and vulnerability; without a doubt, the final act is the most affecting. This is helped by a twist or two, where it becomes clear that neither party has been telling the whole truth. The verve of these revelations animates the production and would benefit from being paced a little earlier, to avoid what can feel like a hollow shouting match in the first half.
The performances are strong, with a real sense of these actors claiming the characters in this new writing as their own. Dennis’ Jamaican accent is excellent when he hits his stride, evening out through the performance after risking being distractingly wobbly at first. And, as ever at the Jermyn, despite the compact space the set design (Isabella Van Braeckel) is evocative and the sound and lighting (Fergus O’Hare and Tom Turner) are exceptional. The effect of hearing people calling up to Keri from the street level ‘below’ is especially clever, as are the flickering lights when we shift into the almost supernatural closing scene.
The ending, though, feels a little too pat, with a fragile promise of redemption that comes unconvincingly hot on the heels of a trauma in the closing moments. Ultimately, The Dog Walker’s odd couple narrative is not a new one; there are plenty of precedents of city oddballs finding each other in theatre, tv and film. As such it’s hard for this world premiere to carve out much that’s new, and, despite flashes of real humanity, clever staging and spirited performances, we risk feeling underwhelmed by a narrative that feels easy to predict.