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The Dog Beneath the Skin review at Jermyn Street Theatre, London – ‘a historical curiosity’

Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas in The Dog Beneath the Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas in The Dog Beneath the Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Written in 1935, The Dog Beneath the Skin is the first play that WH Auden and Christopher collaborated on. While both writers excelled at capturing successive zeitgeists, here this sense of the writing being ‘of its time’ is not so much a virtue as a hindrance.

It’s set in the rural village of Pressan Ambo where, each year, one person from the area is selected for the quest to find Francis Crew, missing heir to the local pile.

This year it’s the turn of Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore) and, undeterred by the fact none of those previously chosen have returned, he gamely sets off accompanied by a whiskey-drinking dog (Cressida Bonas).

The cast multirole as the characters Alan meets on his cross-European travels. Rujenne Green repeatedly stands out for her sophisticated and pared-back performance of even the most broadly comic of roles. Bonas is similarly economical in her approach. She resists over-doing the farcical animal routine as man’s best friend.

Designer Rebecca Brower’s Pressan Ambo is a quasi-fairytale setting, a bucolic backwater gradually taken over by ecclesiastical fascists who deck the halls with black flags.

But instead of feeling unnervingly relevant to contemporary events, the play remains lodged in its pre-war period thanks to a very specific wit and tone, similar to that in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Jokes often fare badly over time and while of historical interesting, the ones here sound terribly clunky to a modern ear.

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Lesser-known Auden and Isherwood play that fails to feel like anything more than an historical curiosity