A sure bet: Apocalypse Theatre Company & Griffin Independent’s The Dapto Chaser

First produced in 2011 by Merrigong Theatre Company, Mary Rachel Brown’s The Dapto Chaser is a wart-and-all love-letter to greyhound racing, and sinks its teeth into the dog-racing culture with gusto. Produced by Apocalypse Theatre Company and Griffin Independent, The Dapto Chaser is ninety minutes of acutely-observed writing and performances, wrapped up in the story of a family stuck in the vicious cycle of gambling as everything goes to, well, the dogs.
Many years ago, I read Markus Zusak’s series of books about two brothers who live near Central and spend a chunk of their time around the Wentworth Park dog track. Like Brown’s family – the Sinclair’s – the Wolfe brothers are fighting against their circumstances, each other, and end up winning in a way that only they and people like them can. The Dapto Chaser centres around a dog called ‘Boy Named Sue’, his owner Cess, Cess’ brother Jimmy who works at the Dapto race track, their father Errol, and the dog club manager Arnold Denny, and the dog-eat-dog struggle they find themselves locked into seemingly forever. Where The Dapto Chaser succeeds with flying colours, is in its language, its depiction of this family on the lower edge of society; in its evocation of the colourful and larger than life characters you find trackside.

While the first scene seems to drag a little towards its end – as Errol and Jimmy lock jaws one too many times – it merely serves to set up the rest of the play, and it is soon galloping down the track, chasing the lure, until it barks triumphantly at the end, as the top dog. What is interesting though, is the way Brown structures her play so it is essentially a series of two-hander scenes, each with their own struggles and nuances, their dogged determination and rough-hewn charm, and there are not really any villains in the piece, though you could certainly see some of the characters in that light. Just as Apocalypse didn’t pull any punches in their epic and intensely-moving ASYLUM series in February, here they don’t blame anyone for these people’s troubles. Brown’s script, while understandably bleak at times and certainly written from a harsh place in society, also bubbles with compassion and charm, and makes sure we see each of these four characters as people, as people worth caring about.
Glynn Nicholas creates many beautiful moments of theatrical tension through his staging, through his creation of a fifth vital character – the dog, Boy Named Sue, created purely through a very simple and effective mimed action which never outstays its welcome. Like Brown’s script, Nicholas directs with an eye for detail, for the reality of the circumstances, but also the warmth and humour that exists in the script. Georgia Hopkins’ set is fantastically worn-in, the carpet and chair stained and torn in all the right places, the kennel and observation box a beautiful addition to the stage magic already created. Toby Knyvett’s lighting is clear, warm, and lends a subtle and moving poetry to the scenes. Daryl Wallis’ sound design is clear and effective, from the track-side calls and race-crowd ambience, to the metallic grating of the lure whizzing past on its track, right down to the out-of-tune radio (expertly interacted with by Danny Adcock).
The four men in the cast are all tremendous, and help carry this race-dog over the line with dignity, aplomb, and a little too much relish (not a bad thing by any stretch). Danny Adcock’s Errol is a fiercely determined man, desperate for things to continue as normal even if his number is almost up; his loyalty to the dogs is warming, even if his dog-sense if way off. Jamie Oxenbould’s long-suffering Jimmy soon reveals himself as the quiet saviour of the family, the one who has been trying to make things work for the past many years, working two jobs to make ends meet, even if his loyalty to the dogs rubs uncomfortably up against his loyalty to his family; his desperation (and glee) in the final scenes is a joy to watch. Richard Sydenham’s Cess is a fast-thinking dog-man, who lives and breathes dogs, and probably speaks their language given half a chance; his devotion to Boy Named Sue is beautiful, his betrayal heart-breaking. By the time the play barrels down the home-stretch and around the final post, his resolution and determination to honour his father is poignant and quietly despairing. Noel Hodda as track-manager Arnold seems to be having too much fun on the Griffin stage, relishing playing the slimeball of the piece with every inch of his being, but it never interferes with the character, with the humanity and truth of his character’s situation; his reaction to the play’s conclusion is fantastic.
In another piece of coincidental programming, the recent controversy surrounding the use of live bait in dog-racing throws Brown’s play in a new important and topical light which will not hurt this production. While people may be inclined to steer away from a production about dog racing for fear of what it might reveal, The Dapto Chaser elegantly acknowledges the sport’s troubled history, and (wisely) shows us not the sport itself but the people caught up in it, the people who depend upon it; the people who live it every day of their lives. Lives which are made and broken by the dogs, lives which are for the dogs. But this doesn’t mean these people are not human, are not worthy of our attention, are not worthy enough for their story to tell.

In another’s hands, The Dapto Chaser could have been a dog, but under the astute attention of Glynn Nicholas and his team, Apocalypse Theatre Company and Griffin Independent have backed a winner, and this hound is set for a long and healthy life. 

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