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Michael Coveney: A dog's life on the stage, Neil Bartlett steps out, and a grim new musical

Our four-legged friends are hogging spotlights across the country

It's a dog's life in the theatre this week, with a big shaggy Irish wolfhound bouncing all over the place in Shakespeare in Love at the Noël Coward and a scruffy little lurcher stealing the show in Simon Godwin's fresh, funny and wholly delightful The Two Gentlemen of Verona on the main stage at Stratford-upon-Avon.

One man and his dog: Roger Morlidge as Launce and Mossup as Crab in Two Gents
© Simon Annand

And here's the thing: I'm reliably informed that Mossup, the lurcher playing Crab in Two Gents, is paid £350 a performance. That's a bit more than some of the lower rank RSC actors are getting. So Barney the wolfhound must surely have negotiated a whopping West End wage packet.

No wonder Shakespeare in Love producer Sonia Friedman - a notable doggie-lover herself, often seen tickling her terrier on a first night - hasn't hired any above-the-title star names in Declan Donnellan's ensemble; all the cash has gone on the canine's tender loving care and dog biscuits.

These star mutts are in demand. Certain cats are, too: the talented ginger feline, Jasper, in Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Haymarket was on £500 a week - and that's five years ago - adorning Anna Friel's performance as Holly Golightly so irreplaceably that he was put up in a nearby swanky hotel by the molly-coddling management.

Barney doesn't have a programme biography at the Noël Coward, but Crab does in Stratford (and a mug shot, bless). She's made countless television appearances (Casualty, The Tudors and Topsy and Tim), a couple of movies - including Mike Leigh's latest, Mr Turner - and appeared in various advertising campaigns.

Frankly, her experience shows, not least when yawning in a sort of "seen-it-all-before" fashion while Roger Morlidge goes off on another circuitous, and very funny, routine as the manservant Launce. One or two of the lead actors - the outstanding, super-composed Michael Marcus as Valentine, and the ice-queen blonde Sarah Macrae as Silvia - simply don't begin to compete in the CV stakes.

They are both terrific, though, as are Mark Arends - last seen in Robert Icke's 1984 at the Almeida - as Proteus, and Pearl Chanda - another virtual newcomer, fresh from RADA - as Julia, Shakespeare's first heroine to disguise herself as a boy; as "Sebastian" as it happens, another nice cross-reference to the Two Gents-into-Twelfth Night progress of Shakespeare in Love. Julia chase down her lover, Proteus, who's fallen like an avalanche for his best mate's intended, Silvia.

The RSC hasn't always trusted this play, one of Shakespeare's four wonderful early experimental comedies - the others are The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost. I've seen them place it by a swimming pool in 1970 (Ian Richardson as Proteus, Helen Mirren as Julia, Patrick Stewart as Launce), chop it in half (in John Barton's curious 1981 apology on a double-bill with a similarly mutilated Titus Andronicus) and pad it out needlessly with the best songs of Cole Porter (David Thacker's 1991 Swan Theatre version).

But Simon Godwin trusts the piece implicitly, finds elegant solutions to the problems and makes a truly auspicious RSC directing debut; as auspicious, in fact, as Edward Hall's with this same play in the Swan in 1998. It's going to be a crowd-pleaser, this show - great music and design, too - and it's a great shame it only plays in Stratford until early September before playing a week in Newcastle (though there is a live screening on 3 September).

Bartlett returns to the National as a novelist

The National has always had a good array of affiliated activities under its own roof - tea-time talks, educational programmes, "in context" discussions, exhibitions, interviews - and I don't go to nearly enough of them. So I hope to enjoy the Platform discussion with maverick director and author Neil Bartlett next Friday (1 August) in the temporary theatre formerly known as The Shed.

It had better be good, not least because I'm the one putting Bartlett through his paces. He's written an intriguing novel - his fourth - about a creepy phantom of the backstage variety theatre in the 1950s, The Disappearance Boy, a dark tale of blood, sweat and fears usually kept hidden behind the plush red curtains of the old music halls and the Brighton Grand.

Over the years, Bartlett has run companies, notably Gloria, collaborated with Complicite, Improbable, Sheila Hancock and Julian Clary, was artistic director of the Lyric, Hammersmith for ten years from 1994, and has worked at the NT as well as the RSC. He's a dedicated boundary breaker, smasher of taboos, gay activist and brilliant vulgarian. His fellow novelist, Will Self, says that he creates new worlds and then conquers them. I can't wait to learn more.

Another new musical asks for trouble

There's a new musical called Grim opening next week at the Charing Cross Theatre (formerly the legendary Players, where Sandy Wilson launched The Boy Friend and the Victorian burlesque pantomimes were a long-ago Christmas treat). It's asking for trouble, isn't it, with a title like that?

Love Never Dies never recovered from being unfairly dubbed "Paint Never Dries" and that Norwegian non-tuner Which Witch ("Why, why?" and "Norveige, nul points" were among the critical comments that almost led to a diplomatic incident) never had a chance. Nor did From Here to Eternity, once we realised how long it went on for.

So you have to be careful. Elsewhere in the Lloyd Webber canon, Cats was a great title (and poster), Stephen Ward wasn't. But The Fields of Ambrosia ("Where everyone knows ya"), quite a good title, actually, was sunk when word got out about the electric chair. Let's hope Grim soon spreads a feel-good factor before the grim reapers, the critics, sharpen their scythes.