I spoke to Exeter alumna Lucy Rivers about her role in A Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other Love Songs), which has toured internationally, and arrives at The Northcott from 18 – 22 June. Rivers is a Cardiff-based actor, writer and director who co-founded the multi-award-winning production company Gagglebabble. Read Rivers’ cheery words from a gloomy, overcast Tuesday afternoon.
Z: Before discussing the show, I wanted to ask about your Exeter connection, and if you enjoyed your time at the University?
L: Oh yeah definitely. I had three years of studying drama there, 20 years ago now, and it was brilliant. I researched quite a lot of the different drama departments around the country and I felt that Exeter really suited me. It was quite a practical course, even though it was still academic, and I think back then it was quite small, certainly compared to now. There were brilliant teachers and I had a great three years. It really set me up for what I’m doing now with Gagglebabble, in terms of having my own company and creating my own work. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of Exeter. We did a lot of our own impromptu shows at Boston Tea Party, and I remember playing in the symphony orchestra.
Z: So, the show is back for more by popular demand I suppose, as there was an original run in 2014?
L: Yeah that’s right. I wasn’t actually involved in the very first incarnation, but then I got involved in the national tour in 2015/16. The show then went on an international tour, where we went to amazing places like Columbia and New Zealand and South Korea. We haven’t done a show in three years, but it’s back by popular demand. It’s one of Kneehigh’s best, I think.
Z: And the reviews you’re getting from Hammersmith at the moment are amazing. I wandered what it’s like reprising the role, and if you think the performance has changed at all over the years?
L: I think the show has changed slightly overall. The director and writer have put in some tucks, and they wanted to make it slightly darker this time, partly because of the current political climate. It’s also a tiny bit sharper. I mean, It’s great reprising the role, in fact I’ve got an amazing experience where I’m sharing the role with someone on this tour, because we’re both mums, and we thought it might be a bit long away from home. It’s a brilliant thing to be able to share a role and see your family.
they wanted to make it slightly darker this time, partly because of the current political climate
Z: And I guess you can bounce the characterisation off each other?
L: Kind of, but I think it’s more about experimenting to see how different the role can be. They’re a wonderful company to work with.
Z: I also wanted to ask about the music, because it’s quite a sound-infused performance?
L: Yeah, lots of amazing music.
Z: So, I understand that Dead Dog in a Suitcase is based a loosely on the 18th century play The Beggar’s Opera, with sort of a modern twist, with ska and grime influences in the modern version?
L: Yeah, so it’s Charles Hazelwood who’s an incredible composer and conductor and all-round musical genius. He’s written a very eclectic score, which goes from ska and grime, and more modern music to Purcell and even some of the old folk songs that John Gay would’ve included in the original Beggar’s Opera. It’s a brilliant mix, and it does feel contemporary, even though it’s inspired by a 18th century play. It shines through the times.
it does feel contemporary, even though it’s inspired by a 18th century play
Z: I think that’s a really interesting twist that could help pull in audiences from all different age groups.
L: I mean music always sets the tone, and these songs are really built from ballads. They really rock out. We’ve got three dedicated musicians, as well as…well everyone has a go basically, the music’s pretty central to it. It feels like a vibey, cool show. Sometimes our audiences are mostly students and they absolutely lap it up. I don’t think anyone’s really experienced theatre quite like it before. Also, obviously, it’s suitable for all ages.
Z: I also wanted to ask about your character: you play the widow to the town’s mayor, Mayor Goodman?
L: That’s right.
Z: And she’s been described as a balancing, ‘moral heart’ of the play. I wondered about the extent to which you’d agree?
L: Yeah, she is. She’s maybe not the most fun character in that way, because there are some really fun baddies, but I think it’s quite an important figure to have in a show where there’s so much immorality and so much corruption. She is this constant, strong woman, who is really driven after the death of her husband. She uncovers all this corruption in her town, and she’s driven to expose its awful underbelly. There’s an amazing finale moment where I get to sing and rip up a massive violin solo, and then an incredible guitar and sub-bass-heavy track. It’s an amazing finale, and I get to rock out with the violin, so that’s always fun.
Z: Sounds pretty satisfying. I also wanted to ask about puppets and puppetry, because it seems like they’re an important part of the play?
L: Well Sarah Wright and Lyndie Wright are a daughter/mother puppet design family who work on the show. They started at the Little Angel Theatre, which is famous for puppetry in London, so there’s a brilliant family of puppet makers involved. There’s lots of amazing puppets: lawyers and crocodiles and Punch and Judy. The Punch and Judy show is a big part of Dead Dog, which I think is a really clever device. Punch gets to comment, and be a nagging voice, on our protagonist Macheath’s shoulder. There’s amazing puppetry in the show and I’ve also been involved with a lot of puppetry at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Every year they do a big show. In Dead Dog it’s funny puppetry- it’s not too serious, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a dog that pisses and shits, and these babies who look sweet but behave appallingly.
Z: I think The Metro called them ‘gruesome puppet babies’
L: Yeah, they are quite scary. It’s a real carnival, a feast for the eyes and the ears- just classic Kneehigh really.
highlights the hypocrisy and the corruption that runs in our society
Z: You tweeted that the performance is ‘perfect for our dark times’. How apt do you think the play’s themes are for the ‘current political climate’ that you mentioned?
L: Well, basically, John Gay’s play was revolutionary for looking at the upper classes and portraying them as not so… good. I guess our show, in the same way, highlights the hypocrisy and the corruption that runs in our society, particularly in the people with power. Money, in the play, is a big driving force for power and corruption. It really highlights these issues, without being specifically ‘about’ our current political crisis. It is set in a fictional town, but it could be anywhere. I think it cleverly, through humour and bleakness, highlights what a mess the system is. It has corrupt policemen, and a corrupt family who end up shooting anyone who gets in their way. I think these times are dark. It feels a bit dramatic to say that, but you’ve got places that are banning abortions, and you’ve got votes going to more and more extreme right wing or fascist views. The themes just don’t feel that far from the truth, and I think people recognise that. When we did the show three of four years ago, it felt right: it felt current. Unbelievably, part of the reason we’ve brought the play back is that it feels even more relevant now.
Z: Well it seems as if people are connecting with that, which is why people keep coming to your shows.
L: Yeah, I guess so. There’s a sort of catharsis in a ‘bring it all down and start again’ performance. The show asks ‘how can we change this?’
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