Arts: Theatre - This life? It's a dog's life

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The Independent Culture
WHAT'S GOING to happen to the flat? Who's going to live there now? Those were the burning questions on the lips of every twentysomething you could find within moments of the end of the traumatic finale to This Life.

The second series was storylined and partly written by Richard Zajdlic, and he's still asking the same questions in his new play, Dogs Barking.

Life after Neil hasn't been too bad for Alex since Neil dumped her for Caroline. Eight months later, Alex is getting on with her life, living in the neat, one-bedroom flat they bought together. But when Neil rolls up drunk and unannounced (only to be shown the sofa-bed), it's clear that - as far as he's concerned - there's unfinished business between them. He too has been dumped and, feeling sorry for himself, blames Alex and begins a war of attrition in order to force her out of the flat.

Zajdlic brings in two further characters to tease out the power game. Neil's friend Splodge is a sweet dolt with a useful van but not much gumption, and Alex's sister Vicky is a bitch with a well-cut bob, who happens not to be short of a bob or two via a smart marriage. Both these characters get meaty moments (as Splodge, Tony Maudsley has a touching speech about losing his kids to his ex-wife), but neither of them escape their real function, which is to question the motives of the main couple.

They also bolster up the workings of the twisty, soapy plot, which sets up a series of increasingly contrived confrontations. Vicky, we learn, always pulls rank over her sister by flirting with Alex's boyfriends. So why then does Alex take her to meet her latest love and let her do it all over again? So that she can have a big scene about it in Act Two, of course. Similarly, everyone knows that Neil is determined to take over the flat, so why leave him there alone?

And why would a woman simmering with rage at her ex-boyfriend's threatening behaviour allow him to touch her face? Moment to mom- ent, the actors find ways for these things to work, but viewed as a whole, they're just papering over the structural cracks.

Zajdlic leavens the mix with some black comedy but the writing's flaws are exacerbated by the production. The play needs a unified acting style, but director Mike Bradwell encourages a range of performances from controlled understatement to heavy-handed signposting of a character's state of mind - there is a moment so overplayed that we're bordering on the Brechtian territory of "My Character Nervously Smokes A Cigarette".

Bradwell also cranks up the tension too fast. He fills the opening scene with a well-paced atmosphere of hostility but then gives Neil way too much rope. Tony Curran - rapidly turning into Equity's Mr Nasty after his vicious pimp in the TV series Undercover Heart and a serial killer in The Glory of Living at the Royal Court - makes Neil horribly menacing.

On its own, Curran's performance is strongly convincing, but Bradwell allows it to overbalance the play. It is almost impossible to believe that he and Alex (a beautifully self-composed Raquel Cassidy) were ever together, and his psychotic behaviour keeps making you wonder why no one calls the police.

From almost the very opening you know that Neil's rage will erupt into violence. When it finally happens, the awkwardly staged scene proves genuinely shocking, but after two acts of delay, you're almost relieved.

The sentimental last scene attempts to elicit sympathy for Neil, but the preceding two acts have simply not prepared us for this. The build- up of doubts means that we remain unconvinced.

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