Bark – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Stephanie Dickson

Director: Joseph Blake

Playing at the Old Red Lion for only three nights is Stephanie Dickson’s well-observed drama set in the recreation room on a cancer ward. Two women, generations apart, form a friendship that is both funny and touching.

In its examination on intergenerational bonds Bark follows on from two plays, shown earlier this summer. Cruise by Jack Holden focussed on a gay man in 2021 discovering the queer past and as he learned about the AIDS pandemic of the 80s and 90s realised he stood on the shoulder of giants. Soho Theatre staged Amanda Wilkins’ Shedding a Skin in which the main character explored her heritage when she rented a room from a woman who’d moved to London from Jamaica. Wilkins recreated the past in a rousing finale.

Bark doesn’t have the budget of either of these plays but it certainly shares their ambition. In this two hander, Grace is 18 and has leukaemia. She has been in and out of hospital since she was five. Helen is 62 and is receiving treatment for lung cancer even though she has never smoked a cigarette in her life. Grace and Helen strike up a relationship after watching a nature programme together on TV and from which this 60-minute play obtains its name.

The first part as the two women get to know each other is wonderfully played, and there is one section, as the pair receive meds intravenously, that is pleasingly choreographed by Jordan Mills and Bobbie Cadden and it clearly shows the routine that both women are trapped within.  It’s a shame that director Joseph Blake doesn’t use this choreography again in the play, and other scene changes appear unnecessarily busy and abrupt with boxes being unpacked and beds being made. These in-between scenes drain the energy from the show.

Dickson plays Grace, exuberant and bright. Her lines seem natural and it’s easy to believe that she is a teenager, desperately missing out on life. Sarah Somerville perhaps has a more difficult role to play as Helen’s back story, along with her blind love for her son, doesn’t feel quite right. Her life may have not been perfect, but surely there is more to her than divorce brings. Helen is 62 and would have been a teenager through the punk 1970s (not the 80s, as the music she plays to Grace would suggest), but Dickson writes her as a stereotypical old person, prudish and not very good with technology.

However, Somerville manages to give her character some warmth, and the struggle for Helen to become Grace’s friend rather than her mother is nicely played, and the relationship, finally, does seem genuine. Unlike Cruise and Shedding a Skin, Grace doesn’t seem to learn anything from her elders; instead this is one-way traffic in the other direction.

Bark is Dickson’s debut play, and it’s certain that we will hear from her again, as her sense of place and story is exciting.  With some work on characterisation, this dog would be wagging its tail.

Runs until 5 August 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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