The old adage goes that you should never work with animals, children, or firearms. But in Belvoir’s latest production – a double bill of one-act romantic comedies – the animals take to the stage with gusto, and the result is a charming, effervescent, and hilarious take on pet-ownership (or co-ownership, as the case may be). The Dog / The Cat are two new plays by Brendan Cowell and Lally Katz respectively. Staged in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre, there is a humble honesty in these two short pieces – both no more than forty-five minutes – and it is quite possibly one of the most entertaining and genuinely funny evenings I’ve had at Belvoir in recent months.
Inspired by Cowell’s experiences co-owning a Jack Russell terrier with Ralph Myers (who also directs and designs this production), The Dog is the kind of story Richard Curtis might explore in his delightfully saccharine films – two friends co-own a dog, meet people in parks, and fall in love – sometimes with the same person. While there is perhaps an element of Cowell’s autobiography in The Dog, it is an occasionally self-deprecating, light-hearted look at the lengths we go to in the name of love and/or bravery, and the potholes and pratfalls which mark our journey along the way. While still about three people and their pets, there are discussions about marriage, divorce, making Big Decisions, dating, and the market for apps such as Tinder (or ‘uDoing?’, as one character envisions it.). Although the ending might seem a bit disconnected from the rest of the play, there’s a shared humanity in Cowell’s writing, in the performances and direction, which you cannot deny, and it makes for an engaging first half.
The Cat, written – appropriately – by Lally Katz, is a play about a broken-up couple and their cat, and all the myriad unforeseen consequences and minefields it opens up. While just as recognisably based in the real-world as Cowell’s Dog, The Cat features Lally Katz’s own (now-trademark) brand of theatrical whimsy, and is perhaps the more theatrically-minded of the two. Like The Dog, much of the play’s action comes from conversations – between the exes and their new partners, between the exes and the cat – and it covers similar territory, except with a more wide-ranging diversity. And while the ending may come across as trite – the old ‘did we dream it?’ trope – the way in which Katz salvages the moment and closes the play is beautifully bittersweet, and makes sure we leave go out into the night with a stupid big grin on our faces.
Ralph Myers directs with an assured cheekiness, letting situations play out in all their chaotic glory, but careful not to let them go too far. Some moments – like the cat’s first appearance – are genuinely funny, and it is a pleasure to see the real-world intrude for a moment as the actors may or may not be able to refrain from sharing a chuckle with the audience. The two plays are also musical to a degree, with The Cat being the one more closely aligned to the genre; the final scene of The Cat is a particular standout, a memorable coupling of Katz’s wordplay (and delicious punning that would make T.S. Eliot turn in his grave), and Stefan Gregory’s ever-reliable composition.
The cast are all tremendous here, with none of the actors having more or less stage-time across both parts. In The Dog, Xavier Samuel is a particularly vulnerable Ben, initially caustic and stand-offish, but as he meets Miracle (Andrea Demetriades), he warms, their two (unseen) dogs being the ice-breakers the other needed to start a conversation. Benedict Hardie as Ben’s friend-and-housemate Marcus is eager, a trait he may share with the dog he co-owns with Ben, but there’s also something lonely to his character too, and the final moments are well-handled and underplayed. In The Cat, Demetriades and Hardie play recently-separated exes (Alex and Albert, respectively), as well as the others’ new partner (Sophie, and Jeff); the only constant is Samuels’ ingenious turn as the Cat, dressed in a black body-suit, hood, ears and tail, in a performance that sets the benchmark for all stage-cats hence.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in this production but there doesn’t need to be. What it is, is a double-bill of romantic comedies written by two theatrical dreamers who have each created a short and hilarious window of what it’s like to share a pet with someone in the twenty-first century. Especially if the pet is a smart-talking, irritable, meddling cat. And The Dog / The Cat more than certainly delivers on this front.