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Review: Good Dog (Watford Palace Theatre)

Arinze Kene's play chronicles how one boy turns from responsible naivity to bitter disillusionment

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It's now a cliché to say how impossible it is to keep up with this hyperactive political news-cycle, and all the questions it throws up. In Good Dog, a finely-observed new play by Arinzé Kene, it seems that one answer to the overriding problem of how the country got here in the first place is found by looking back at the noughties.

We're in 2002, ish: Ms Dynamite is on the stereo, hoodies are nicking Sunny Delight from the corner shop, and broken Britain has just hit peak 'ASBO'. Alive with nostalgia and irony, this one-man show imagines the account of a black youngster (Anton Cross), who is – significantly – given no name. With the help of some pre-recorded voice actors, he chronicles his teenage years: the events which led him from a responsible but naïve outlook to a mood of bitter disillusionment that peaks just in time for the 2011 England riots.

Bullied at school, neglected at home, and conscious of the violence in his corner of multicultural inner-London, the boy is plagued by the moral quandary of whether feeling good is a simple question of doing good. The ‘good dog' is supposed to always get its rewards - so why does this good boy never get a shiny new bike from his mum, but instead a beating-up in the playground?

His story is peopled by memorable community figures; each revealing in their own tragic way how life doesn't always bring you what you deserve. There is "Gandhi", the meritorious shopkeeper who lives to please his father, but gets no respect in return. Or there's Desmond, the estate bully who is simply too fearsome for anyone to give him his just desserts.

Kene has had growing recognition both for the gritty dramas he has penned and his own acting. But for this smooth and humorous performance of a life journey from innocence to experience, Cross, too, must be filed under ‘emerging talent'. While his adaptability allows for detailed character portraits, the story has also been written to work on a broader level. It reflects on what happens when an angry mass of anonymous individuals feel their social contract has been broken, and the catharsis a riot can give them.

In real life, 2011's turbulent summer was prompted by the police's shooting of a black man - Mark Duggan - in Tottenham. In Good Dog, racial tensions and urban conflict are only elements of a morality tale that should still offer talking points even when taken out of London. It has to: because before it reaches its spiritual home there, it's touring the country, from Newcastle to Didcot.

If it seems like all arts are now apparently obliged to allude to Brexit, you'll be refreshed to find something that delves beyond superficial theories about Britain's political divisions. Kene has defied the hyperactive news-cycle to somehow find urgency and relevance in the time of New Labour, Tamagotchis, and Woolworths. It's a time which feels historic, but still very real in the mind.

Good Dog tours to Hexham, Manchester, Huddersfield, Didcot, Newcastle, Ulverston, Birmingham, and London until 11 March

Click here to read our interview with Arinze Kene


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