The Fourth Dog

A comedy about breast cancer, marital breakdown, family baggage and grieving. What could be funnier?
The Old Fire Station, Sat 1 July - Sat 8 July 2017

July 12, 2017
Witty, entertaining play that doesn't trivialise its serious subject

Well I'm glad I didn't wear mascara to this performance, or I would have looked like a zebra by the end. But while Fourth Dog is very moving in places, it is also funny, acerbic, and wise. Zena Forster's writing is tight and surprising, and it packs a hell of a lot into about 80 minutes, with constant earthy distractions (the set features a toilet, for instance, as well as a lot of fluffy white wedding veiling).

Human Story Theatre focus on plays with a health or social care issue at their heart, and breast cancer plays an important part in Fourth Dog. But while health education may be an underlying aim, it isn't the focus - much like the title, this important theme is quite oblique, and vies with some other major strands, not least the history of female medicine, the point of marriage, trying to beat statistics, and the nature of love and marriage. It's an agenda that might be seen as particularly female-orientated, and it has meaty characters of both genders, and all ages. It's really only at the Q&A afterwards with healthcare professionals and a first-hand account of going through diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer that we see this is real motive of the piece.

The setting is a wedding reception: a heavily pregnant bride and her younger groom have just tied the knot, dressed up as novelist Fanny Burney and her husband Alexandre D'Arblay. The bride's mother has been joined by her sister, though the pair haven't been speaking, and the bride's grandmother and her husband bicker. The acting is excellent all round, but the scene is slightly stolen by Karen Ford and John Tolputt as the oldest generation. This pair get some of the best lines, and through their relationship the recognition and value of women's domestic work is explored: grandfather points out how much younger he looks than his wife "I've looked after myself over the years." "Yes, and I've looked after yourself too," she snaps back.

Fanny Burney's extraordinary account of a mastectomy (in France, in 1811, with no anaesthetic) is one climax, but again it vies with grandmother's rousing speech on love and marriage and why her husband shouldn't leave her now, and also with a hilarious (and wonderfully inappropriate) rousing George Formby number.

It's easy to assume that something educational might not be much fun. But Fourth Dog is first and foremost and excellent piece of drama. It is entertaining. The fact it makes you think, be moved, and check for lumps when you get home is just a bonus.

“We’re on our fourth dog for Christ’s sake!”

You are cordially invited to witness the wedding of Katie and Andy. With parallels drawn between living and dead ancestors (the latter being real-life diarist and novelist Fanny Burney and her husband D’Arblay) this wonderful family occasion brings with it baggage, bickering and breast cancer. While this may sound like a tough watch, it is actually quite hilarious.

The sharply written show opens with aforementioned Burney (Amy Enticknap) and D’Arblay (Adrian Banks); the ‘happy’ couple who may not be best suited for each other, just like Katie and Andy over 200 years later. She is 14 years his senior at 41, heavily pregnant and the subject of much discussion throughout the family. Both couples are performed wonderfully by the same actors, providing a lovely reflection on the similarities in their relationships, emphasised by Katie’s obsession with her ancestor -she has chosen to theme her wedding Rococo-style in honour of Burney.

The show immerses the audience in the Big Day, with beautifully linked snippets of the action – whether it is the newlyweds arguing (when they aren’t necking) about the foundations of their relationship, the emotionally distant mother of the bride (touchingly played by Gaye Poole) berating her prodigal sister Deedee (played by Renata Allen) for turning up where she is not wanted or Katie’s constantly bickering grandparents (the delightful Karen Ford and the dry John Tolputt) providing hilarious banter with a paradoxically dark undertone.

The writing carries us through each scene with shared words and phrases and the audience is treated to an intimate view (quite literally sometimes, with lots of visits to the lavatory!) of a family seemingly divided. There is a lot of depth to these relationships and the family’s shared history, and each of the actors put their heart and soul into the performance.

While the show is very funny, it also teaches us about family life across the generations, while furthermore dealing with the tricky subject of breast cancer with a great amount of care and pathos.

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