Oh, look! Look at their little feet! And their sweet little faces – look at those markings! And look at that one – his little whiskers!
Odd Comic’s Dot Howard and Holly Bodmer come towards us, making ‘here kitty kitty’ noises. It’s one of many moments in which we’re cast as the pets. Taking this to its ludicrous conclusion, a cardboard box is brought in. Ah, one of them has brought us a little present, they say, listing the contents of the box that they (but not we) can see. A crisp packet. A bus pass. A hub cap. A breast pump. ‘That’s not hunting!’ Holly says to us sternly.
At other times, they are the pets. For example when Dot runs round and round the space while a voiceover describes a dog tearing round the park with unbound glee. I like a dog, says the man’s voice. Dogs – unlike people – have no ‘edge’. Later, the old novelty pop song, My Dog Loves Your Dog, rings out. Oh and there are little black screwed-up bags – dog poo bags, allegedly – littering the stage. When one of these black plastic balls is thrown into the audience we all flinch and squeal in horror, such is the power of theatre.
Then again, there are the times when none of us are the pets, and the stage is in semi-darkness, better for us to focus on the verbatim texts, recorded at Norwich Hospital with patients temporarily separated from their pets. A woman with a no-nonsense voice tells us about her goldfish, who keeps jumping out of his bowl. She tells us that she wipes him down with kitchen towel, runs him under the tap, and pops him back in. Like many of the interviewed patients, she’s a stroke victim. When she collapsed at home, falling over and hitting her head, she almost knocked over the goldfish bowl. It’s funny and sad and beautiful all at once.
Dot and Holly very clearly like lists. There’s a great long litany of pet names: Holly’s are mostly tasty and cute. Popcorn. Apple. Mango. Dot’s are more – esoteric. Edgar. Allan. Poe. Or then again Sophie. Ellis. Bextor. Sophie Ellis Bextor! My ears prick up – we had a kitten called Sophie Ellis Bextor. And one called Sugarbabe. And one called Gareth Gates. Their mother is called Eric (after Eric Cantona).
But back to the show: did I mention the real live tortoise? There’s a real live tortoise. And a plant in a dog bowl. Fake fur. An empty fish tank. More stories. Lost hamsters. Things that bite. Things that die. One of them – Holly, I think – tells us a story of burying something-or-other in a Tampax box to the tune of Kumbaya My Lord.
This, on the surface, is a young and vibrant theatre – it’s an easy watch, but there is maturity to the work that shines through. It is beautifully structured, it uses the recordings with hospital patients in a respectful way, and Odd Comic are not afraid to use silence, darkness, pauses in the action. It is funny – comedy sketch show type funny at points – but it is also a poignant and heartwarming theatrical reflection on the importance that pets play in many people’s lives.
Out in the foyer at the delightful Norwich Arts Centre (where the show has been developed), there’s a small art exhibition: big word-pictures that announce The Nature of a Dog is a Dog, or You Get Worn With Losing Them; an empty blue plastic dog bowl; a large, hyper-real photo of a fishbowl sat by a river; an unoccupied grey plastic hutch. All part of the multi-faceted arts project that is My Champion Heartache.
The show and exhibition are presented at Norfolk & Norwich Festival under the auspices of Norwich Arts Centre’s [Live] Art Club, with appearances on other nights by Deborah Pearson, Kim Noble, Luke Wright, Richard DeDomenici, and The Neutrinos.