Ivan and the Dogs – review

Soho, London

Dressed in his warmest coat, his stash of pickles and crisps already eaten, four-year-old Ivan stands in a rubbish dump, gazing hungrily at a hole in the ground. Perhaps a woman waits for him down there, a kind mother who will care for him. But all he finds in the sewer is a violent bully who kicks him, and a crowd of vacant-eyed children addicted to glue. So he returns to the cold streets of Yeltsin's Moscow, and watches in wide-eyed innocence as trigger-happy gangsters fatten themselves in expensive restaurants while "bombzis", homeless drunks, freeze to death in the snow. For the next two years, his only succour is with a pack of dogs.

Hattie Naylor's stark, bleak play feels like a fairytale. Its language and rhythms have the steady simplicity of a child's speech: and now this happens, and then this, and then, and then. Forced from his home by a wicked, greedy step-parent, Ivan wins the trust and protection of street dogs by being selfless and kind. His street experiences give him a fierce purity of thought: the human world is evil, the animal world is good; humans lie, dogs don't. There is even, thankfully, a happy ending.

This lullaby quality is disquieting because Naylor's story is based on a true one: Ivan Mishukov spent two years living with dogs on the Moscow streets until he was captured by the police in 1998 and eventually adopted. Rad Kaim, playing the boy, does so absolutely in the present: his face is open and guileless, his expressions quizzical, excited, uncomplicated. Ellen McDougall's precise production traps Kaim in a small white box; he scrabbles within it as though half-child, half-dog – exactly what Ivan feels himself to be.

Until 6 November (020-7478 0100), then at Bristol Old Vic Studio (0117-987 7877), 16-20 November.


Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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