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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2023: The Boy Who Talked to Dogs

Bryan Burroughs in The Boy Who Talked to Dogs. Image uncredited


Well that’s sure to get someone’s underwear in a tangle. Amy Conroy’s adaptation of Martin McKenna’s book The Boy Who Talked to Dogs. A story for older children about a young child set in an Australian pub, the Harp and Hound, complete with house band, pub quiz and beer mats. "Don’t they know children have to be protected from such places and not be sitting in as audience members?" If that’s what bothers you, you’d better grab hold of your Koalas! Martin, the stupid little runt who lives in Limerick with his adored German mother and drunken Irish father, can’t concentrate or control his impulses. This being the 1960s, when Autism and ADHD were unheard off, adults are determined to beat the stupid out of him. Martin subjected to brutal beatings beautifully evoked by a superlative Bryan Burroughs. Then there’s Major and Rex and what happens to them, but we’d better stop there. If that sends the mercury in you moral thermometers rising, well, this bit is likely to send it rocketing. The Boy Who Talked to Dogs is not about you. It’s most certainly for you, but it’s not about you, or about offending those whose children are safe. Its about children who are offended against and made unsafe. Given a voice, and an opportunity, to tell their story, their way, on their own terms, in whatever awkward, cantankerous, roundabout way they choose. The result being a remarkably affecting and brilliantly executed piece of theatre.

Offering up a Grimm fairytale instead of a sanitised Disney childhood, the neglected Martin steals milk, is forced to sleep in a coal shed with dogs, feels compelled to push his cruel teacher to the ground then runs away with a pack of strays to sleep rough as he cares for them and they give him a place where he belongs. Director Andy Packer marshalling several languages and disciplines with aplomb to craft this superb story only surpassed by its telling. Music by Victoria Falconer as Muso, a cabaret style hostess, along with Lisa O’Neill, Quincy Grant, and Emma Luker evokes both history and folklore. Wendy Todd’s stunning set deserving endless awards for its sheer inventiveness as pub walls become holes in the ground, or open out into kitchens and barns. Chris Petridis’s lighting facilitating shadow puppets, countless stars, clever projections and an aura of deep, dark mystery.

When it comes to text, Conroy sparkles, even as she doesn’t appear to do economy all that much. Indeed, there isn’t a sentence Conroy doesn’t try improve on, crowbarring additional words or points to make sure nothing is left out. Capturing the inner language of Martin as he moves through the world, Conroy’s script soars at times. Even so, its heavy handed use of language means it can sometimes soar over a younger audience's head. Parents would do well to note the 12+ recommendation. Yet if Conroy soars, Burroughs remains grounded, reaching exponential heights as a result. His physical articulations as Martin woven into a mesmerising tapestry that leaves your jaw hanging in awe. Martin made truly memorable courtesy of an unforgettable performance by Burroughs.

And the children? During Saturday's early performance, as a rambunctious Martin stalked between the tables, a young boy unable to contain his excitement began singing the Batman theme aloud. The room stiffened, unsure what to do. Without taking a breath Burroughs spun and pointed at him saying; “exactly, you say what you want, however you want, whenever you want.” The room, and everyone in it, was transformed. Job done. The rest was gravy. But what deliciously tasty gravy it was. The Boy Who Talked to Dogs. Should be made compulsory viewing.

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs by Slingsby and State Theatre Company, South Australia, developed with the assistance of Draíocht Blanchardstown, adapted for the stage by Amy Conroy from the book by Martin McKenna, ran as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2023 at Draíocht Blanchardstown until October 7


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