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BWW Review: THE BOY WHO TALKED TO DOGS – ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2021 at Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio, Adelaide Showgrounds

Superbly directed by Andy Packer.

BWW Review: THE BOY WHO TALKED TO DOGS – ADELAIDE FESTIVAL 2021 at Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio, Adelaide Showgrounds Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 25th February 2021.

Slingsby and The State Theatre Company of South Australia are presenting The Boy Who Talked to Dogs, adapted from Martin McKenna's autobiographical book by Irish playwright, Amy Conroy. Assistance with the development came from the Draíocht Arts Centre in Dublin. The production involves the work of two other Irish artists, Bryan Burroughs, who plays Martin, and songwriter, Lisa O'Neill.

Superbly directed by Andy Packer, three multi-instrumentalist musician/performers, Victoria Falconer, Emma Luker, and composer, Quincy Grant, who wrote the score, complete the cast of this production.

Growing up in Garryowen, in County Limerick, with an abusive alcoholic father, who would lock him in the coal shed with the family's two dogs, German Shepherds, Major and Rex, and subjected to more brutality from a schoolteacher, he ran away from home at the age of 13. Today, he would have been diagnosed with ADHD and given the support that he so badly lacked. He lived rough in the hayloft of an abandoned barn for three years, with a pack of six stray dogs for company, during which time he learned a lot from them, and about them.

He eventually came to Australia, and now lives in the village of Nimbin, in the Northern Rivers area of the state of New South Wales, where he has become known as the 'dreadlocked dog man', a 'dog whisperer', through his affinity with, and understanding of dogs. He married and has a daughter, and the two taught him to read and write. He also, unsurprisingly, has six rescue dogs. Although separated, he and his family are still on good terms. He is currently camping, and studying dingoes and wild dogs.

This play, though, only covers the earlier part of his story, from his birth as the last-born and weakest, the 'runt' of identical triplets, one of eight children in the family, through his childhood, and his time living with dogs. He later dropped his birth surname, Faul, and randomly picked the name, McKenna, to replace it.

The venue is divided into two sections, the foyer area being designated the beer garden, and the performance area, The Harp and Hound pub. Set Designer, Wendy Todd, has placed various parts of the set around the walls, with a small round raised stage in the centre of the space. The rest of the space is filled with tables and chairs for the audience. The quite elaborate pub set, where the three musicians are placed, is in one corner, the family kitchen in another, the barn in another, and a stark brick refuge in the fourth. Lighting Designer, Chris Petridis, even controls the lamps on each of the tables, both in intensity and colour, as part of his very effective lighting plot. Ailsa Paterson's costumes are evocative of a past Ireland.

My one big criticism was the sound mix. The guitar drowned everything, apart from some occasionally audible long chords from the piano accordion. The melodies were constantly obscured, the violin never heard, and lyrics and dialogues sometimes lost under the music. This needs addressing urgently.

Including six dogs in the production was, obviously, out of the question, so the clever solution was to use projections and shadow puppetry, with recorded sounds. This works very well indeed.

Then there is Bryan Burroughs, who throws himself completely into the character of Martin in a performance that includes great physicality, as well as strong emotions. His performance is magnificent as he swings between the child, the teen, and the man looking back on his life. He brings a wealth of light and shade, well-varied pace, and occasional humour to the role.

This production is suitable for the whole family, and younger audience members nearby appeared to be completely captivated. If there are still tickets available, don't waste time thinking about it, book straight away.

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From This Author Barry Lenny