Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Ivan and the Dogs, Soho Theatre

Review: Ivan and the Dogs, Soho Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 21.10.2010

The Ivan of Hattie Naylor’s title might as well be known as the Moscow Mowgli. In a severely impoverished Russia, circa Boris Yeltzin, households must make any savings possible. For the poorest amongst them, this means evicting anything that needs food, drink and warmth. First to go are the dogs, thrown out onto the streets. Next, for the worst hit, are the children.

Ivan Mishukov jumps before being pushed. He escapes his mother’s alcoholic, abusive boyfriend and his “fists like forever” for a feral existence on the city’s savage and over-crowded streets. Alone and unequipped for survival, the four year old finds himself watched over by a pack of dogs. Its not long before he’s joined them, shedding his human traits for canine manners.

The same story was, of course, told by physical theatre troupe New International Encounter. Where their comic, clunky version was drawn with marker pen, Naylor’s is etched out in faint watercolours. The dog that appears projected behind Rad Kaim’s Ivan is as ethereal as a cloud on a blue sky; almost a protective spirit.

Naylor’s script is beautifully played by Kaim, a presence as tender and refined as the finest sirloin. His Ivan recounts his existence “as if it were now” in a voice on the edge of breath. He almost whispers and we lean in to listen. The feral nature is found not in animal savagery but a soft, vulnerability: more dormouse than deerhound. His presence is an airy retreat, tucked unseen into urban crevasses and shadows. His eyes flicker, scanning for danger, but Naim seems simultaneously serene. Until, that is, flight must be swapped for fight and he stands, upright for the first time, his voice grown full, and barks and howls and guards himself with a relative majesty. Still a child, but also a lion.

In all this, Kaim is aided by one of the most fascinating designs this year. Naomi Wilkinson presents a small white box (almost a miniature Appiah space) on stilts. It makes a puppet theatre of the Soho’s space, allowing Kaim to fill it rather than seem adrift. Like Kaim’s delivery, Wilkinson’s space draws us in; it’s theatre’s equivalent of a pinhole camera.

Certainly, it presents Kaim a range of physical options. For the most part he sits, legs dangling, on its edge, like a child on an adult chair or a puppet on a shelf. When inside he crouches, primed for fight or flight. He folds himself into corners and – at the points where Naylor’s script has Ivan at his most animal – Kaim hops to the floor and stands upright, as if at his most human.

If there is a problem, its Naylor’s script itself, which never manages to tear the story open and gorge on its real points of interest. The combination of broken English and child’s eye view – though it increases the softness – flattens the language and the telling glosses over more savage, animal elements, as if embarrassed by them. It is all light and maternal. Occasionally Naylor needs to stop protecting her protagonist, else she risks sentimentality.

The curiosity is that Naylor’s text has birthed an interesting piece in Ellen McDougall’s fine production. In itself, it is flawed, but its manipulation and execution employ such delicate slight of hand that they are circumnavigated deftly. A simple and pure piece of theatre, superbly performed, but Ivan and the Dogs needs more bite.



  1. Lovely review Matt – just to say that the actor's name is Rad Kaim (rather than Naim).

    Sarah at Soho Theatre

  2. Thanks Sarah – duly noted and changed.

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