Some years ago Victoria Melody and her husband Mike bought a plant. The logic being that if they could keep it alive they might one day go on to buy a dog. And then, eventually, a child -except they wouldn’t buy the child of course.
They had no qualms about buying the dog though. Not after they fell for a floppy-eared mongrel by the name of Major Tom – lethargic even by the notoriously nod-off norms of basset hounds. After garnering adoring glances outside coffee shops, strokes from Saturday afternoon shoppers, someone suggested that Major Tom might be more than your average pooch. ‘Why not enter him into a dog show?’ they said. Gauntlet laid down, Major Tom soon found himself acquiring more than just admiring glances, winning a whole host of gongs, including the prestigious prize for the biggest ears in a south-east England dog competition.
Feeling guilty about subjecting her beloved basset hound to such close inspection, Melody signed herself up to a pageantry of her own. So begins a quest, both for Major Tom and for Melody. Both determined to win.
It plays out like an amalgamation of every programme ITV2 have ever scheduled on a weekday night. All fake tans, invisible gastric bands and group dress fittings. But in spite of its seeming superficiality, there’s more than meets the fake eyelash laden eye. Major Tom is candid, clever and ceaselessly entertaining, with Melody succeeding not only in cooling any gnawing moral doubts, but in grabbing us by the collar and dragging us along for ride.
She wears her politics lightly and though she is clearly grounded by an established set of feminist ideals, much of the nuance lies in how those values grow hazier and hazier as the compulsion of competition takes hold. “Nice legs” a judge says at one point. But cringe though she might, Melody takes it in her stride and struts off, keen not to upset her chances of winning the prize.
It’s a meticulously crafted piece of storytelling which occasionally beggars belief, such is the extent to which Melody immersed herself in this strange social experiment. She incorporates her findings throughout, using documentary footage, photographs and, of course, Major Tom himself to ensure that we never lose sight of the authenticity. An authenticity which sits in stark contrast to the inherent artifice of beauty pageantry.
It feels about ten minutes too long and the pace sags noticeably in the final third, but these are minor quibbles in what is an otherwise pedigree performance. You’d be barking to miss it.
Major Tom is playing at Battersea Arts Centre until 27 September. For more information and tickets, see the Battersea Arts Centre website.