A young boy gets taught that good things come to good people and he believes it until the difficulty of disappointment hardens that optimism and lets it flake away. Good Dog watches a boy grow into a young man and learn to process power and pain to make the best of his lot.
Arinze Kene’s script is relentless: a two hour monologue spanning 6 years and three periods of time in the protagonist’s life. He recounts memories of his father now overseas for work, narrates his neighbourhood and the many characters who populate it, and muses about his dreams of owning a bike and becoming a good man. After enduring bullying at school and witnessing his mother succumb to depression after a miscarriage, the protagonist wavers in his faith about the goodness on its way to him, instead choosing to return the hits he receives from the world.
Justin Amankwah is captivating in his controlled and compassionate portrayal of a sweet boy, a sulky teen, and a wounded young man. His openness and vulnerability early on charm the audience and makes his descent into a more reserved and dubious character painful to watch. Amankwah’s talent also extends to the care he shows to the other characters of the boy’s neighbourhood, handling their feuds, dreams, and disappointments with the same delicate touch.
Direction from Rachel Chant maintains a careful pacing that beats and builds with the rhythms of a rocky life. Moments of emotional overflow are unexpected but understandable and powerfully convey the underlying currents at work in the boy’s world. Lighting design from Kelsey Lee is an understated mix of cool and warm that subtly mirrors the psychological landscape of Amankwah’s performance. At the same time, Melanie Herbert’s ambient sound design, at times ringing with a metallic coldness and at others with an earthy string twang, works like the buzzing white noise at the back of the boy’s thoughts.
The set design by Maya Keys constructs a generic industrial space of concrete, metal railing, and chain link fencing that calls to mind the barren, neglected spaces of housing estates and areas with low socio-economic residents. But Amankwah’s comfort and freedom of movement in the space, his uninterrupted sitting, swinging, and hopping around indicates a familiarity that warms the steely surfaces and illustrates the nuance of the boy’s story.
The devastating impact of this production is the understanding that the protagonist is facing forces much larger than himself: grandiose notions of goodness and justice, failing institutions like schools and the police, and the suffocating effects of poverty. The audience bears witness to the grinding down of a life in a social system that does not value him and will not protect him. In the final moments of his reconnection with his mother, Kene offers a glimmer of hope for personal fulfilment but he never removes the threat of more struggle, more hardship, more pain on its way.
Good Dog is beautiful not as a romanticisation of poverty, but as a story of honesty and integrity told with compassion and care.
Good Dog is running at Kings Cross Theatre from November 1st – 16th