at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 30th April 2013
I’m not a dog person.
They come in many shapes and sizes, but as far as I can tell all of them are one or more of the following: smelly, lumbering, yappy, excitable, dirty, cheeky or needy. Give me a cat any day of the week.*
For an hour earlier, however, I fell in love with a basset hound, a certain Major Tom. Lolloping around the stage during Victoria Melody’s solo show, he becomes more than just a dog. He’s one of us, and serves as a symbol for all the stupid things to which we as a species subject ourselves. Especially beauty pageants.
Major Tom starts off with a story of how said dog was acquired and the love he subsequently received from all he met. Although it’s not quite so simple. Melody, who has been greeting us as we entered, slips slowly into ‘performance mode’ so that it’s difficult to tell where improvisation ends and the ‘script’ begins. This is furthered by the fact that Major refuses to do what he’s told and has been rather taken by a woman on the front row during the pre-show. Normally, Melody recounts, he just sits on his bed for the hour and doesn’t move much. Not tonight, however. At first, this feels like it could be staged (maybe she’s just a brilliant trainer), but it soon becomes clear that Major is going to do whatever the hell he wants. Diva.
For some performers, this would throw them off piste, but Melody takes it in her stride, sorting Major out before ploughing on. In the same way that certain actors choose to eat so that they focus less on their lines, the fact that she has to look after the dog means it becomes less of a performance and more a one-way conversation.
So, there’s a dog and a woman. Major, we are told, was entered into a few amateur dog shows to see how he’d do, and after a few successes this became a bit more of a regular occurrence as he and his owner worked up the ranks. Melody, however, describes how she felt guilty putting her pet in front of other people in order to be judged, and decided to enter herself into a Mrs. UK beauty pageant. Both dog and owner, then, are put on trial.
This is the basic premise. Melody describes the ups and downs they both went through, charting how both managed to do pretty well for themselves until the climax of the show, when they both have their Big Day.
The implications of playing these two stories alongside one another are fairly clear; in both of these competitions, entrants are viewed as little more than objects to be judged and scored, with little consideration of their feelings and who they are as individuals.
At first, that latter point may seem a little stupid with regard to Major. But Melody does such a brilliant job of building up his character that we come to see him as something close to human too (and he supports her in this, yawning when she’s talking and turning his back to us on occasion). We also realise the ridiculousness of pageants and pet shows – in one, humans are treated like animals, whilst in the other, animals are treated like humans.
Throughout her preparation for her pageant, Melody tells us how she became a “project” for many men, including her personal trainer and her beautician, as others around her also came to view her as a prize to be collected for themselves. Throughout the show, however, it becomes clear that Melody was also doing the same with Major, grooming and pushing him in order that he could become the outlet for her. She, then, was no different to the men she encountered along the way.
Projections are used throughout, serving the dual purpose of helping with storytelling and heightening the parallels between the two competitions. They also make the show feel more ‘real’, considering we can see that these events actually happened.
But did they? Well, obviously we have video proof so yes they did, but a point Melody raises got me thinking. When she was getting interviewed by the judges at her pageant, she says that she told them about how the contest “turned her life around”, though she admits to us straight after that she bent the truth in order to help her chances in the competition. How much of Major Tom can be said to be “true”, then, and how much is doctored to help the story and have an effect? Is she doing to us what she did to the judges?
And even then, we can’t be sure that the whole thing wasn’t some kind of big performance. Though it’s clear Melody threw herself into both competitions, did she only do it for the purposes of the show? I found myself questioning her motives, which seemed so simple at first but slowly became more murky as we considered the possibility that the whole reason it was done was merely for the purposes of theatre.
That doesn’t make the show any less valid, of course. If anything, it makes it far more interesting, forcing us to consider the lengths we’d go to in order to get a story. I see that Melody has tried her hand at all sorts of hobbies for her shows, so that they become not just anecdotes but the thing itself (though it should be pointed out this isn’t really documentary theatre). And, ultimately, it means that both we and Melody have the last laugh. As we guffaw out loud for the dozenth time and hear of the awards she and Major did (or didn’t) receive, it feels like the whole thing’s been one big joke. And this, it seems, is the right way to view the subjects of this show, remaining as they are the anachronistic, outdated remnants of a bygone era.
*I am fully aware that, even after all the inflammatory and dogmatic things I’ve said and written over the years, this is perhaps one of the most contentious lines I’ve penned.