Review: Katie and Pip, VAULT Festival

I turn up to watch Katie and Pip (part of the VAULT Festival 2019) panting even more than the play’s canine star, having raced around the underbelly of Waterloo station for ten minutes to find the venue. Once I do though, Charlotte Berry and Rob Gregson of Preston-based theatre company Tin Can People greet me warmly. They address the audience with a calm purpose and inform us who they are and what they are here to do.

This is a show about Katie (Katie Gregson), Rob’s 15-year-old sister and her medical assistance dog Pip. Katie has type 1 diabetes and has trained Pip to alert her when her blood sugar levels are dangerously high or low. We can hear Pip backstage, whining and eager to make her much-anticipated entrance, as the implications of Katie’s diagnosis are laid out in simple terms. Though she is a service animal, for the purposes of this show she is just a dog, and we are welcome to treat her as such. This includes (I am pleased to hear) giving her a stroke if she comes near you.

Preamble over, Pip bursts onto the scene with all the playful energy of a border collie confronted with an apparently endless supply of tennis balls. The human cast members disappear, leaving Pip to charge around after a hilarious Theresa May squeaky toy thrown by an audience member. Really, Pip is so entertaining on her own – and has such excellent comedic timing that I would honestly be entertained just watching her cavort for an hour.

There’s not much plot or narrative to speak of, and the piece isn’t really a play as such – but then it’s not trying to be. It seems inappropriate to judge it on any terms other than its own, which are clearly laid out. They are just three people and a dog. Still, much of the content lurches between detailing factual snippets of the diagnosis, symptoms and implications of Katie’s condition that descend from medical jargon into gibberish, frenetic dancing accompanied by aggressively sensory light and sound, to calm interludes where Kit-Kats are offered around and pauses for Katie to check her blood sugar.

My main critique lies in my own befuddlement towards it, rather than its lack of structure or non-conformity to theatrical norms. Some parts are overly explained and repetitive, verging on the patronising. At other points, it ranges into multi-sensory avant-garde absurdity; an all-out attack on the senses which I personally find a bit overwhelming and uncomfortable to watch. As far as I can tell, these extended sequences are intended to either mimic what it’s like to be in hyper- or hypo- shock, or perhaps what it’s like to exist in the mind of the dog. Or neither, or both. Maybe that’s the point?

Despite this confusion, the prevailing tone is one of hope, and I am struck by how a life-altering diagnosis of such a condition can lead to a beautiful relationship like Katie and Pip’s. At turns baffling, joyful and informative, this is a highly personal and uplifting performance piece. Despite the confusion one thing is clear: just how much everyone – especially Pip – loves doing this show.

Katie and Pip is playing at Network Theatre, VAULT Festival until 27 January 2019. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website.