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Edinburgh Fringe 2015 Review: My Beautiful Black Dog

Aiming to capture what life is like with depression, this punk play has plenty of bark, but not quite enough might. Amy Wong reviews

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Image: Olivier Richomme
Image: Olivier Richomme

Venue: Underbelly Cowgate

Taking inspiration from Winston Churchill's canine description of depression for its title, My Beautiful Black Dog is about punk pop poet Brigitte Aphrodite's experiences with the illness. Aphrodite chooses to tell the majority of her story through song, often accompanied by her partner Quiet Boy. It's an interesting concept that yields very mixed results.

An early song in which Aphrodite recounts having a panic attack at the supermarket cleverly conveys her increasing anxiety through the music's rhythm. 'Pop This Party' uses a similar technique to chart Aphrodite's erratic highs and lows. It's a highly ambitious song which sees Aphrodite don an extravagant canary yellow robe with a pink feather trim and glittery heels, but her frantic performance manages to be both funny and poignant. If you ignore the bizarre moment when Aphrodite snorts glitter, 'Pop This Party' is one of the more memorable moments of the show and highlights the devastating unpredictability of life with depression.

Unfortunately, Aphrodite doesn't quite have the voice or the writing skills to make all of her material work. The song 'Lay Low' is a bit of a mess while one about alcohol isn't as funny as Aphrodite seems to think it is. Her rendition of the children's song about going to the garden to eat worms while she hides inside a trunk detracts from the sentiment of the scene. It's disappointing because the trunk is otherwise effectively used to show Aphrodite's desire to shut herself off from the world.

Her scenes with Quiet Boy, who occasionally outshines her, are among the show's most moving moments. In one, he gently places a radio outside Aphrodite's trunk but doesn't force her to come out, demonstrating his understanding nature. The quiet embrace they share moments after is also touching.

However, the staging of My Beautiful Black Dog could have done with more care. Words are regularly projected onto the wall during Aphrodite's song, but a lot of them aren't readable even from the front row because they're often hidden by the trunk. There are also a few distracting audio problems. Aphrodite's microphone doesn't always work properly and there's too much feedback from the guitars at times.

Ironically, My Beautiful Black Dog works best when Aphrodite ditches the gimmicks and the singing, although the contrast is needed for the show's potential to move the audience to be fully realised. A brutally honest letter that Aphrodite reads towards the end of the show is particularly powerful. My Beautiful Black Dog's strength lies in the fact that Aphrodite doesn't sugar coat her situation. The show isn't a simplistic recovery story about beating mental illness. As Aphrodite explains, there is no real end, no happy ending - depression is something that she continually lives with. However, Aphrodite is also hopeful about her future and the defiance in her final song is wonderful to see. It's just a shame that My Beautiful Black Dog doesn't consistently pack the emotional punch it does towards the end.

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