Review - Ivan and the Dogs

ATC and Soho Theatre present


By Hattie Naylor

Soho Theatre until 6 November 2010

Tue 12 Oct – Sat 30 Oct, 7.30pm

Tue 1 Nov – Sat 6 Nov, 9.00pm

It’s the 1990s and Russia, under Yeltsin, is in the grip of a brutal recession following the collapse of its economy. People are so poor they are abandoning their dogs and even their children.

Based on a true story, IVAN AND THE DOGS is about a four-year-old boy who, escaping an abusive, alcoholic step-father, spends two years living on the streets of Moscow with a pack of dogs. They survive by scavenging from bins and relying on the sympathy of restaurant workers.

Ivan inhabits a terrifying Dickensian world. A group of glue-sniffing kids live like a pack of feral animals amongst the city’s underground pipes; drunken tramps, known as bombzi, haunt the streets. By sharing the meagre foods he finds or begs Ivan befriends a white dog, he names Belka, and her pack. For Ivan, they are the only friendly creatures he comes into contact with on the harsh streets. Eventually he is allowed to share the warmth of their den and learns how to bark and howl. It is a damning indictment of man’s inhumanity to man when Ivan proudly states: “Now I am dog”.

The police try to pick-up Ivan but each time, the dogs rush to his defence and they are unable to separate him from the pack. As many Russians continue to live in crippling poverty the emerging gangster class grow fat on criminal gains. But these are turbulent times and during one particularly bleak period even the restaurant bins are empty of scraps.

In Ellen McDougall’s impressively economic production Polish actor, Rad Kaim, utilises only a three-sided white box on stilts, the size of a large kennel or dog’s cage. This simple design by Naomi Wilkinson suggests both the innocence and limitations of a child’s perspective. Impish and physically adept, Kaim gives a stunning performance as the boy-dog. His canine companions are brought vividly to life by Simon Dinsett’s clever projection of silhouettes, whilst Dan Jones’ evocative soundscape of pre-recorded Russian voices and the sound of children’s chatter ensures we are transported into the heart of the Russian metropolis.

Originally conceived as a radio play, Hattie Naylor has fashioned a strangely poignant urban fable that also serves as a hymn of love to the loyal canine. Quietly moving and curiously uplifting.

Originally published in Theatreworld