A tale full of sound, and furry

Regent's Park promises you the best in show
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The Independent Culture

At Regent's Park they have their priorities right. When I call and ask to speak to the most important member of the cast of the Open Air Theatre's new production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the press officer responds, "You mean Ian Talbot?"

Talbot, who is playing the Fool, is artistic director of the Open Air Theatre. But I did not mean him, and say so. "I had to say that in case anyone was listening," the press officer confides. "When would you like to meet the dog?"

Josie is 14 years old, has a shaggy black coat and a crank-shaped tail and is as gracious and distinguished as any theatrical dynasty stalwart, although her origins are obscure. She was found as a very young puppy in a bin-liner and was taken to the Manchester Dogs' Home where she met her companion, personal trainer, dresser, and beautician Rachel Kavanaugh, who is also The Two Gentlemen's director. Josie is squeamish about responding directly to the press, so after receiving my gift of dried pork crackling she directs me to her representatives and settles down at my feet.

The key role of Valentine's close companion, Crab, is only Josie's second theatrical role but it is a huge step up: a London play, Shakespeare, and a named part. Her first part was a character known only as "Stumpy's dog" in a touring production of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. "She's had very good reviews for her sad eyes," says Kavanaugh. "In Plymouth, her timing was better than in Liverpool." She has also learned how to steal scenes. At one performance, when a hobo exclaimed "I can't stand it", Josie heaved a heartfelt sigh.

Talbot rehearses Josie's scenes with an understudy - an imitation dog mounted to a board on wheels - then takes the star herself through her paces. She is, says Talbot, a quick student. "At the end of the first rehearsal, she was doing one scene off the lead." Crab has no lines, but Kavanaugh doesn't want to restrict Josie if she feels inspired. "We're not going to block improvisation," she says.

Was Josie's casting, I ask, in line with the current fashion for cross-gender Shakespeare? Talbot explains that a female Crab has been a tradition at the Open Air. His own dog, Bramble, previously played the part, and was particularly adept at playing submissive female roles, flopping onto her back and waving her paws in a perfectly nuanced flourish which elicited a collective "Aah" from the audience - and, naturally, stole the show.

A triumphant turn seems assured , but has the part taken its toll? Has she been troubled by being described in public as a dog with loose morals and a looser sphincter? At that point Josie rises and, showing me her bottom in a pointed manner, stalks off in a way that indicates the interview is well and truly over. "Oh dear," says Talbot. "I should have warned you not to mention that."

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1 (020-7486 2431; http://open airtheatre.org) Wed to 6 Sept; playing in rep with A Midsummer Night's Dream

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