Saturday, June 15, 2019

Tall Tail review: An excellent Pixar-bright debut about a dog caught in the homelessness crisis

Al Dalton's play for young audiences finds a dog who takes us through life with his homeless master.

Stack Theatre, Cork Midsummer Festival
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

How believable is Tall Tail, Al Dalton’s excellent debut? A Pixar-bright play for young audiences, it follows a dog named Here-Boy (James de Burca) as he takes us through life with his master Fran, a homeless man who has been escorted away in the night by ambulance. 

The premise would probably appeal on its own. As long as there is Man, there is Man’s best friend. Instead, the innovation of this play is to have Here-Boy emerge from a tiny shelter, more human than canine in appearance, and wearing earflaps for warmth. Here’s a witness to life on on the streets, at a time when the state can’t accommodate its own. Tall Tail is as believable as it needs to be.

De Burca brings the necessary buffoonery to the play’s physical comedy. But when Here-Boy gently says “Sometimes it can be nice to make eye contact when meeting someone,” there’s a subtle sense of longing for acknowledgement 

That best sums up Dalton’s staging for ALSA Productions, which delivers a funny and heart-rending story of friendship against the background of a national crisis. Even Davy Dummigan’s impressive alleyway set, glowing with exposed light bulbs, sits on the edge of a construction site.

While waiting for Fran to return, Here-Boy chronicles their daily routine. They go to the supermarket for food handouts. They exchange meaningful looks at each other. One tells Here-Boy to stay outside. Another tells Fran to share his apple Danish. 

There is a delightfully Wes Andersonian oddity to this dog, who not only relishes in old-timey expressions (“Easy like Sunday morning!”) but is overly literal about things (“‘I’ve eyes on the back of my head,” Fran said. But he doesn’t. I’ve checked”).

More surprising is the risk shown by composers Rebecca Ruane and Conor Clancy, who not only perform the live score but whose lyrics feel written for a much more soulful record. When Here-Boy’s thoughts turn to a story about the planet’s loneliest creature, the blue whale, the lyrics are poetically varnished. (“Trust in me, memory. Out at sea, ebony”).

With Here-Boy seen alone and hungry, against the lonely whale’s song, it’s clear that Dalton’s play is unafraid to take young audiences to dark places. But Tall Tail is ultimately sympathetic to those being punished by the homelessness crisis. Here-Boy chooses to carry on, cleaning away his few possessions in a cramped room. You won’t find a more affecting portrayal of resilience anywhere else. 

Run ends Jun 16th.

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