Lucky Dog, Royal Court Upstairs, London

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The Independent Culture

As the Queen's speech fades, we find Sue and Eddie, a couple in their late fifties, sitting down to Christmas dinner somewhere in Sheffield in Leo Butler's Lucky Dog.

As the Queen's speech fades, we find Sue and Eddie, a couple in their late fifties, sitting down to Christmas dinner somewhere in Sheffield in Leo Butler's Lucky Dog. Cutlery scrapes on plates like fingernails across a blackboard in the silence. They pull crackers with no bang.

Eddie breaks up the day by disappearing for long walks with the dog, Lucky. Sue invites the neighbour's spiky-haired, adolescent son Brett in for Christmas pudding. The largest character of all is their adored, absent son Danny, who is spending Christmas with his fiancée in London.

This strained façade of domestic happiness takes on a different, more troubling shape when Butler breaks it up into shards, and challenges us to piece it back together. The exposition is so spare that the spectres that haunt their marriage become as huge for the audience as they are for the characters shooting out at each other in the stalemate of their emotional and sexual siege.

Butler's domestic drama has a provoking hinterland of unspoken trauma. Is Sue's morbid fear of cancer based on any real awareness of an illness? Eddie may or may not be having an affair. Doubt is even cast on the very existence of Danny when Brett says his mother hates Sue, and only permits her clumsy attempts at holding his baby sister out of pity "cause yer ant got none of yer own".

Whether Danny has merely grown and left or has been invented by the couple to fill a void, the play remains a plaintive song to loss and absence. And it is an adroit shift in perspective on the age-old off-to-the-Big Smoke theme from a younger writer imagining the scars that such ambition can leave behind. Designer Jean Kalman backs up this theme well by rendering her set in childlike lines and colour, with haunting footage of a child playing in the garden back-projected through the window.

James McDonald's production is well acted in the Royal Court's intimate upstairs space. Linda Bassett's brittle Sue is moving as she flicks the pages of her photo album that latterly contains nothing but pictures of Lucky. She painfully attempts to recreate (or create) Danny in Brett. Liam Mills is the personification of an adolescent's slamming bedroom door as the snarly, scowly boy. Alan Williams' maddeningly inarticulate Eddie, who, when he finally breaks into a full sentence, announces to Sue that he doesn't - if he ever did - love her, is strong and still.

Lucky Dog is an intricate and difficult play in that the pieces of the broken relationship do not easily fit back together. The first impression is that what you have witnessed is merely soap through a prism of great dialogue. But as you reassemble the fragments of the evening, Butler reveals himself as a writer of prescience and subtlety. It's a play that stays with you.

Booking to 12 June (020-7565 5000)

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