I have to say that I walked into this piece, a one-woman, one-dog show from Brighton-based artist Victoria Melody, with some trepidation. The intimate venue, slightly interactive format and prospect of one performer (plus hound) all conspired to fill me with a sense of dread; greeted at the door by the affable Melody and her co-star, the eponymous basset hound Major Tom, I waited for her to suddenly switch into a heightened performance mode, or maybe just make her dog perform tricks for an hour. As it turned out, Major Tom was subtle, hugely engaging, and one of the most enjoyably stimulating experiences I’ve had in the theatre for a while: a face-hurts-from-smiling show.
In Melody’s work, she immerses herself in the subcultures and niche activities of England, participating in various events and recording her experiences to turn them into live performance – for previous shows she’s been a pigeon racer and a northern soul dancer. For Major Tom, Melody entered her dog (a lovely wrinkly thing she reckons “looks like an old Tory”) into a series of amateur dog competitions before eventually landing the big one, Crufts. In solidarity with her canine friend, she then put herself under the harsh scrutiny of the judges by entering the Mrs England beauty pageant.
Melody recounts these experiences with the aid of video recordings, a few costume changes and some demonstration with the hilariously unwilling Major, who spent most of the show curled up on his bed or sniffing around a lady’s handbag in the front row. The multimedia elements and minimal theatrical effects are completely cohesive, and the narrative structure of the work gives it purpose throughout (presumably thanks in part to her dramaturg, Paul Hodson). Acutely observed and delivered with warmth, it’s a story about the pursuit of perfection and victory, and how what seems trivial to the outsider can become an obsession to the enthusiast.
What works about Major Tom is that it’s perfectly balanced – whilst many of the lines had the audience laughing out loud, it’s by no means played purely as a stand-up routine or variety act. Equally, the politically-loaded or ethically questionable aspects of the institutions she describes are implied without being hammered home too heavily. Simply presenting the pairing of these two competitions – one of which judges the breeding, training and grooming of its entrants against strict criteria, and the other being a dog show – is enough of a statement, and Melody lets her audience think for themselves.
Melody and Major are currently travelling the UK together before settling for a month at Edinburgh’s Summer Hall this August, a venue which produced some of the most exciting and talked-about works of last year’s fringe, including Big Mouth and La Merda (The S**t). Whilst she may have a challenge drawing in audiences for a regional tour, this unique show is surely set to build momentum and become a festival favourite.
Major Tom is touring until Wednesday 26 June. For more information, see Victoria Melody’s website.