DON’T tell anyone, but A Dog’s Tale playwright Poppy Hollman prefers cats. Director Rachel Gee, by comparison, is a dog owner.
This evening, Mikron Theatre Company’s touring premiere pitches up at Scarcroft Allotments, Scarcroft Road, York, for a sold-out 6pm performance.
“Well, I’ve tried to keep it hush-hush…but yes, I’m a cat lover and I do have two cats,” admits Poppy. “But we had lovely comments at last Saturday’s opening show at The Holbeck in Leeds, and the loveliest was, ‘Do you know, I’d never have guessed you didn’t have a dog’!”
In their 49th year of touring by canal, river and road, Marsden company Mikron are celebrating (wo)man’s best friend in a musical comedy caper, commissioned from Poppy to “look at canines past and present and the enduring bond between people and their dogs”.
“I genuinely did have to research about dogs, looking to work out why dogs means so much to people,” says Poppy, of her first professional commission. “Over the past year, in the pandemic lockdowns, we’ve really seen that with sales of dogs going through the roof.”
Poppy’s research took her to Crufts, the self-anointed world’s greatest dog show. “You realise the broad appreciation the British have for their dogs, as you see just how much they love them,” she says.
“We close the play with the song I wrote, Be More Dog, about going for a walk and seeing the world through their eyes: their loyalty, their love, the simplicity of everything.”
As one verse goes: “So be more dog/With loyalty and courage we should/Be more dog. Be as they would be to you/Look outside your own head. Take the lead and don’t be led/’Cause doggedness is good for you.”
“Through writing this play, I’ve now got a real understanding of what dogs mean to people,” says Poppy. “I love cats, but we do have a Dogs v. Cats rap battle in the show, where I’m a bit mean about cats because of their aloofness. Dogs will do anything to please their owners, whereas cats will just walk away with their tails in the air.”
What are the characteristics of her two cats? “They’re two ginger toms, Ziggy and Sparky; one is very fluffy, the other is very smooth; one is very greedy; the other is very fussy, so the greedy one eats the other one’s food,” says Poppy.
Exit cats stage left, tales left in the air. We need to talk instead about A Dog’s Tale, wherein Linda and her wayward rescue dog Gary are pursued by security through the halls and history of Crufts, accused of a terrible crime.
In highly competitive world of heroic hounds, pampered pedigrees and naughty nobblers, does Gary have what it takes to win the day?
“I spent two fascinating days at Crufts [at the Birmingham NEC in March] last year, eavesdropping on competitors, chatting to people and trying to work out which dog would win in each competition (success rate: zero),” says Poppy.
“People were very friendly and frank in sharing their suspicions about judging bias. ‘Well, you know, that dog will win because it’s Scottish and so is the judge!’ (It did win).
“My impression of Crufts was that while dog participation was on an exclusive basis, a huge variety of humankind was in evidence, on two legs or four wheels.”
This was testament perhaps to the huge importance of dogs to many different people in their roles as pets, medical assistance dogs, working dogs and more, says Poppy. “It’s also true to the founding principles of Charles Cruft, who charged only a penny so that everyone could enter their best friend.”
A cast of actor-musicians, Rachel Benson, Thomas Cotran, James McLean and Elizabeth Robin, will tell Hollman’s stories. “I’ve vwritten over 20 characters to be played by only four actors, but I know they’ll enjoy the challenge of bringing it to life!” says Poppy, who was picked to write the play after participating in Mikron’s 2018 Writers Scheme.
“It’s my first professional commission. It’s been a delight to work for Mikron, a company whose creativity and ethos I love.
“From the application process, they selected ten writers to go to Marsden to find out about Mikron, to understand how they work, how they have such a unique playing style.
“They asked us each to write a scene and a song for a show about Crufts, and on the basis of what I wrote, they chose me for the commission.”
How did she feel? “Initially, it was scary, because I knew nothing about Crufts, but actually once I added to that scene, I really got into it, with anything in its extremes tending to comedy.”
Poppy’s research also took her to the Kennel Club archives, Europe’s largest dog library, near Green Park, London. “It was a very nice library to work in on and off for a few weeks, and we do a bit about the Kennel Club in the show because they were the rivals to Charles Cruft, though I hope they don’t think we’ve been mean or unkind!” she says.
From her research, A Dog’s Tale had to emerge in the Mikron style. “Their brief was pretty loose: ‘we like to have a laugh, we like people to learn something, and if we have a cry as well, that’s great’,” summarises Poppy. “Mine is more of a comedy as I found so much joy in the dog world.
“The key Mikron house style is to have no lights, no recorded music, and every show is outdoors this year, because of Covid, and that means that the story really has to motor on to keep the audience’s attention when they’re outdoors.”
Poppy believes she fits the Mikron modus operandi like a glove. “Exploring British life in an irreverent way is manna to the way I write, but I had to re-write what I understand about writing drama,” she says.
In practical terms, she found it impossible to write the script without allocating the parts first, given the need to accommodate 20-plus characters. “I had to think, ‘who’s just come off?’, ‘who can come on now?’, ‘who can do a quick scene here?’.
“So, the main parts take fewer of the side characters, with the other two ending up doing endless changes! James McLean is one of those two: look out for his Sandra Woofhouse, based on the character we love from TV!”
A Dog’s Tale should have wagged last year, but lockdown put paid to Mikron’s travel plans. A year later, “we’ve left the script pretty much as it was,” says Poppy.
“I handed it in February last year when they were about to go into rehearsal, and in a way, I wouldn’t know what to have done to update it, though we’ve seen things like dog prices sky-rocketing over the past year.
“We did think about Covid, but actually it’s a light show, and rather than saying what a terrible year we’ve had, it’s time for escapism!”
Before becoming a playwright in rural Bedfordshire, Poppy had a very different career as head of touring exhibitions at the V&A Museum, London, from 2006 to 2013.
“The change wasn’t accidental. I had children and we left London for more space and a more rural life. The practicalities of commuting to London to do a pretty serious and demanding job became more difficult. “I just needed to get out of London. I’d loved the job, but it was necessary to move on.”
Poppy set her heart on creating plays for community audiences. “I decided, with zero experience, that I would write a play about my home village of Turvey – Bells Of Turvey – focusing on a real family from the mid-19th century,” she recalls of her 2017 debut.
“We had a community cast of 40 and a big stage down the middle of Turvey Village Hall, inspired by things like the Mystery Plays and Lark Rise To Candleford.”
Not content with writing a show on such a scale, she also directed the community production. “But I’m not really a director at heart,” she says. “It’s healthy, I think, to have a director to bring something new and magical to the play, and in turn you should stick to your own strengths.”
She loves productions where you can feel the connection between the company and their audiences. “That happens even more with shows on Mikron’s scale. I just love the immediacy of the performances and the incredible talents of the actors, how they perform and play music too,” says Poppy. “As a writer, I just know they’re going to be creative with what you write for them.”
Looking ahead, “I’d love to write another play for Mikron, and I’m now working on a piece about the unrest of the late-15th and 16th century Enclosures, and our relationship with that world now.
“I’m also thinking of writing a play about bird-watching, which would definitely be a comedy. It’s been hard to write over the past year, though I’ve worked on some radio pieces off my own back, but it’s a situation that most writers face after doing their first commission.”
A Dog’s Tale is up and running, as cat-loving playwright Poppy Hollman and dog-owning Mikron director Rachel Gee’s shared vision comes to life.
Have they fought like cats and dogs? “We didn’t really discuss Rachel’s dog,” says Poppy. “We certainly didn’t bring up our differing preferences!”
Aboard narrowboat Tyseley and on land, Mikron Theatre Company are touring Poppy Hollman’s A Dog’s Tale nationally in tandem with Amanda Whittington’s new women’s football play, Atalanta Forever, until September 19. For full tour details and tickets, go to: mikronorg.uk