Tom Hooper’s extravagant blockbuster may have given cats all the attention but a lovably scruffy new stage musical puts their canine rivals in the spotlight. A Dog’s Tale, written by Poppy Hollman, is a story of terrors and terriers, charting the frayed nerves and fierce competition at Crufts. Hollman’s play, which will tour the UK, explores the famous dog spectacular’s origins in the Victorian era, with the ambitious Charles Cruft – who masterminded the first event in 1891 – emerging as a PT Barnum figure. It is not so much the Greatest Showman, perhaps, as the Best-in-Showman.
Hollman says her “guilty secret” about the comedy, which is her first professional commission, is that she shares her family home not with dogs but cats. (Two ginger toms, one fussy and one greedy, who tend to sleep on her laptop.) But she adds that Cruft himself “always dodged the question about what dog breed he had. After he died, his wife said, ‘We had cats!’”
Being a cat lover gave Hollman an outsider’s view on her two-day research trip to Crufts last year, she says. “I sat next to the breed rings, seeing all these madly different-looking dogs and secretly chatting to people, asking their opinions and listening to them bitching about who was going to win. It’s such a hilarious place, ripe for comedy, but also a really inclusive and welcoming environment with a massive spectrum of society.” After all, a quarter of the UK adult population have a dog.
One of the play’s main themes is class: a Kennel Club snob calls Cruft “a jumped-up salesman. A Man with no – ahem – pedigree.” Cruft’s father was a jeweller but, as a teenager, Charles decided against a career in the family business. He began selling “dog cakes” for James Spratt’s pet food company before founding his competition. In one of Hollman’s rousing songs, entitled Be More Dog, Cruft sings: “Though you may be a mutt / When your dreams are bigger than others’ / Who cares that you are not a pedigree?” Cruft, says the playwright, had a mission to take dog shows “away from the aristocrats” and open them up for all audiences. “Charging only a penny to enter was key to it becoming as huge as it is, even if it’s now owned by the Kennel Club, who were initially his rivals in the world of dog shows.”
Before becoming a playwright, Hollman was head of touring exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She applied for Mikron theatre company’s “new writers” scheme in 2018 and was assigned the brief of writing about Crufts. Mikron specialise in what she calls “fondly irreverent” plays that explore British institutions and “gently probe” at social issues – “They’ve done the Women’s Institute, allotments, the Wrens, Butlin’s.”
Hollman’s musical – composed by Rebekah Hughes – lightly touches on a range of canine welfare issues, including puppy farming and over-breeding. One of the characters is an animal rights campaigner. “It’s important to point out that there are people who fundamentally disagree with what they’d call a dog beauty pageant,” she says. “There will be people in the audience on both sides of this argument, and it’s not for me to make the judgment. They should make their own minds up.”
The character list for the play includes humans and dogs, and Hollman suggests that the actors could carry “those stiff ‘invisible dog’ leads, which were used in music hall”. Actors are also called upon to mimic the voices of their invisible dogs. The tale’s canine hero, Gary the rescue dog, disgraces himself on his first entrance by humping an audience member’s handbag and relieving himself. The showstopper in the script presents a Hamilton-esque rap battle between a cat and a dog, with the moggy declaring: “Yo, I’m a feline, I’m feeling superior / You walk towards me, I show my posterior.”
One line in this celebration of our canine companions claims that doggedness is good for you and it has certainly worked for Mikron, who have staged more than 60 original shows since the company was founded in 1972. They tour the UK on a narrowboat in the summer and go by road in spring and autumn, their venues including allotments, care homes, pubs and village halls. In such community settings, the company favour an upbeat performance style that Hollman says has to compete with “the noise of the bouncy castle”.
A Dog’s Tale starts its tour at the Marsden Mechanics Hall in Huddersfield in May. The unconventional venues that Mikron visit means that some audiences will be able to bring along their own dogs, quite the rarity in theatre world. “How on earth are the dogs going to react?” she laughs. “It could be chaos!”