This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
Mental health is a prominent issue at the Edinburgh Fringe. Exhaustion, competition and daily judgement create a heady cocktail of stress that is enough to waylay those of the strongest confidence. Brigitte Aphrodite’s My Beautiful Black Dog, with its idiosyncratic examination of one woman’s struggle with depression, is a pertinent piece of theatre then, not to mention a powerful one.
Named after Churchill’s famous description of his personal demons, My Beautiful Black Dog is a musical journey of Brigitte Aphrodite’s own struggle with mental health and alcoholism. Performed by Aphrodite, with the jangling guitar accompaniment of musical director ‘Quiet Boy’, it is presented as a series of original songs – sometimes raucous, sometimes tender, but always heartfelt – interspersed with brief monologues and dialogue.
With something of the kookiness of Zooey Deschanel (albeit turned up to a terrifying 11), the lyrics of a traumatised Lily Allen, the self-concern of Morrissey and the righteous anger of Billy Bragg, Aphrodite’s vocals are wholly engaging. The musical numbers occasionally tend towards abrasive noise, but one is never left in any doubt that the messages they contain and the emotions they embody are thoroughly genuine, which lends them a tremendous gravitas. One, Pop The Party, which presents Aphrodite’s descent into substance abuse against uncomfortably upbeat backing music, is particularly memorable.
Played out against a stark brick wall, with few props but a variety of glittery costume changes, My Beautiful Black Dog’s aesthetics are the perfect complement to its content. Aphrodite and Quiet Boy are energetic to the point of frenzy, jumping around the stage, screaming at each other, then relapsing into dreamlike calm. Frequently, Aphrodite retreats into a large black box, only to remerge with a changed costume and a changed mood.
The show’s greatest strength, however, is Aphrodite’s writing. Her rapid-fire bursts of monologue show creativity, verbal dexterity, and perhaps most impressively, a sensitive touch of humour – “Me, I’d fall in love with a bus-stop if I was waiting there long enough” receives a notable laugh.
Don’t be fooled, though. Despite these flashes of humour, this is a serious show about a serious subject and at times, Aphrodite’s performance can be difficult to watch.
That said, My Beautiful Black Dog never strays into total self-pity. Crucially, it is a tale told by someone aware of their problems and tentatively trying to address them, which lends it a precious air of optimism – most obvious in the soaring penultimate number, ‘Creshendorious’. Aphrodite herself gets it exactly right – despite its dark subject matter, this is ultimately a hopeful play.