Performing a two-hour show completely solo must be something of an endurance test for actor Anton Cross, but it's testament both to his spectacular skill as a performer and to the strength of Arinzé Kene's script that Good Dog never for a second loses its audience's rapt attention. Created for British African company Tiata Fahodzi in association with Watford Palace Theatre, this stripped-back show at mac Birmingham is one of the most compelling single-handers you're likely to experience.

Combining a strong instinct for characterisation with a subtle, controlled physicality, Cross conjures up a vivid picture of the multicultural London community that his adolescent narrator inhabits, deftly populating the stage with a whole cast of characters. Aided by little more than some atmospheric lighting and a huge, wooden slatted box ominously evoking dingy tower blocks, he makes us see his character's world in detail, whether peering down over his balcony, pushing his way through shop doors or standing on a station platform feeling the rush of wind from a passing train.

Kene's script is witty and inventive, packed with punchy, original descriptions that offer quick contextualisation, like the swarms of “Wot-Wot” girls (“What? What?”) who plague and pillage “Gandhi's” corner shop. Initially set in the mid-2000s, much of the action takes place just before the internet had properly added fresh artillery to the teenage bully's armoury, thus its aggressions are still primarily physical. Observations on the build-up to the dramatic social breakdown we're still experiencing today aren't hammered home but instead woven into the fabric of the story: the impulse to take a pair of new trainers from another kid's schoolbag for the street cred it will bring; the teachers who tut and chunter in the staffroom but feel powerless to do anything about even the most obvious signs of abuse; the Of Mice and Men-like failed aspirations of people like Gandhi (real name Pritesh), Mrs Blackwood and even our narrator himself, whose business dreams become their downfall.

Good Dog is in some ways a conventional coming of age tale, yet its narrative runs counter to the traditional morality and ideas about maturity such stories typically espouse. It's a tale of transformation: from a naïve, 13-year-old good boy, passively accepting the beatings he's doled out on all sides in the hope of an eventual reward; into a hardened, angry young man who is learning how to hit back. Just like his friend's cricket ball, stopped from sailing through the air indefinitely by hitting walls and surfaces to slow itself, so our narrator steadies himself and rediscovers equilibrium by lashing out when he gets hit, refusing to drift through life feeling completely powerless.

Yet despite all the warnings, the play's culmination in 2011 with one of the defining events of the decade still comes as a surprise. In attempting to make sense of what took place, Good Dog raises important questions about accepted values, forcing us to look again at where our ideas about what's “good” or “bad” come from, and whose interests they really serve. Is meek acceptance truly a virtue to be praised when it gives free reign to the cruelty of those who flaunt the rules, at every level of society? Who benefits from a “turn the other cheek” philosophy? And sometimes, might an existence have become so unsustainable as to necessitate a burning down and starting again from scratch, for the good of all involved?

As we've seen all too often lately, nothing unites a community like an outrage, and when an endlessly unreachable carrot turns out to be simply another stick in disguise, there's certainly plenty to be angry about. “You're five years too late!” shrieks the animal fury of a man carted off by police, who deign to appear only after he finally takes the protection of his son into his own hands, with disastrous and unintended consequences. It's a damning indictment against the privilege of ignorance, and a failing system that makes only the feeblest attempt to clean up chaos after the fact rather than working to prevent it in the first place.

Offering a genuinely fresh perspective on familiar events, Good Dog's arguments are unapologetically provocative, and feel ridiculously long overdue.  

*****

Reviewed by Heather Kincaid