The traveller this story follows is one Barnaby Olsen, who plays himself as the lead storyteller in this eclectic collection of tales across his time fixing up boats on the other side of the world. Olsen is supported by an energetic and captivating ensemble made up of Stevie Hancox-Monk, Tess Sullivan and Andrew Paterson. These three hold several characters each throughout the show ranging from Kerikeri mums, to a cryptic Turkish history teacher, to the many dogs which feature along the way. This dynamic trio provide the world and the characters which give this story life, each of them at high pace and with great integrity. Their punchy collective energy is contrasted by Olsen’s grounded and compellingly simple style of storytelling. His narration throughout the show often feels like the calm amid a highly entertaining storm and though he insists verbally and via the show programme that this story is not about him, it certainly wouldn’t exist without him.
I must give special mention to Tess Sullivan, who owns their many roles especially a kiwi bloke who regularly has us in fits of laughter and occasionally on the brink of tears. I was fortunate enough to see the development season Turkish Dogs Are Racist at BATS Theatre last year and Sullivan’s performance feels like it has most sharpened and progressed into the final work. This is not to take away from Hancox-Monk and Paterson who are both wonderful performers and strong contributors to the success of the show - all three along with Olsen and director Jonathan Price are also credited as writers of this remarkable story.
Probably my favourite element of the show is the use of props. Everything is used in more than one context and seldom for its intended purpose. This is a language in the show which continues to surprise and delight throughout. The masterful puppeteering of a cardboard box (“operated” by Hancox-Monk) is one of the more ingenious and effective set choices from Lucas Neal.
The use of everyday items to fulfill many purposes is aptly supported by Elekis Poblete Teirney’s lighting design. It is largely kept simple and makes use of a variety of practicals from headlamps to torches which contribute beautiful to the real and rustic world of the show. The same can be said for the acoustic sound design, by Oliver Devlin, which is simple and assists the more touching moments of the show to great effect. I often say that the design is at its best when you don’t notice it at all, and this is certainly true of Turkish Dogs. Everything contributing to the world is there for us to see, and we accept it unapologetically. There’s an element of ‘Theatre of the Poor’ to the stylings of this show which feels right for it’s various settings, especially the small Turkish town which plays host to most of the show.
It is a testament to the direction of Jonathan Price that these simple elements are able to come together so believably. There is a lot going on, and characters, props and settings never stay the same for long, but we know exactly where we are at all times. Even when lines of dialogue are lost amongst the chaos and laughter, the audience is never left behind.
Now comes the bit of the review where I stop gushing and offer some “critique” of the show. If you’re reading this to decide whether or not to come to the show, I should have given plenty to convince you by now. This next bit is not so much for you, but is hopefully useful for the creatives to continue to grow and improve on this wonderful piece of theatre and future works.
A couple of small issues I think were part of seeing the show on opening night. We did lose lines of dialogue and at times audience response appeared to come as a surprise and disrupt the flow of performance. This was particularly noticeable in the opening section in which Olsen recounts his travels pre-Turkey. I imagine this is something the cast will settle into as the season goes on, but it was the one time that the ensemble did not appear completely in control. A possible contributor to this is also the high pace of multi-rolling in this section which sees the cast working very hard for the effect of whirlwind pace. This could probably be simplified and still gain the desired effect, but as I say I suspect this is largely some opening night kinks which will be ironed out quickly as the season progresses.
If this show is ever remounted, I’d also like to see some development in the set. The set has been rebuilt into Circa Two and, though it serves its purpose well across settings and stage pictures, I’d like to see some of the surprises which feature in other aspects of the show reflected in the set. One of the beautiful things about this play is the length of time and space that it spans. Through all of this, the set does not change and I wonder what magic might be found if it did. The hatch is used well to provide some of the unexpected character cameos which litter the show, and it’s this sort of surprise framing I’d like to see more of. It’s not so much a critique as a dream but seeing the set unfold/transform/change throughout the show feels dramaturgically like it would provide a helpful physical mirror of the vast journey we are taken on.
Overall, this is an excellent story told well. It provokes joy, wonder and thought from its audience and wraps it all up with a heartwarming ending which you can’t help but smile about. Thanks to Olsen and Helena for sharing this story and for the rest of the crew for bringing it to life. I’m sure that this show will continue to delight audiences for as long as you continue to share it.
A Traveller’s Guide to Turkish Dogs is on at CIRCA THEATRE until February 8 2020 and is produced by A Mulled Whine. Tickets can be purchased on the Circa website.