Archive for February, 2022

Writer: Ruby Thomas

Director: Lucy Morrison

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What is it that separates the human animal from all other species? Ruby Thomas’ play, The Animal Kingdom, receiving its world premiere here, asks that question and seems to toy with the answer that there is not very much. The stage is set out like an animal sanctuary with the audience seated around an enclosure, wildlife noises are heard in the background and the only thing that could be missing to complete the picture is a commentary from David Attenborough.

The play’s “menagerie” is a dysfunctional family of four, shepherded by Daniel (Paul Keating), a calm and compassionate counsellor. His mission is to chair six therapy sessions which have been convened to help in the recovery of family member Sam, an in-patient at a psychiatric clinic. Sam is a 21-year-old university student, played with nervy intensity by Ragevan Vasan; he has been self-harming and the play charts the cathartic process over the six sessions, exposing previously hidden emotions and breaking through barriers.

Martina Laird excels as Sam’s mother, Rita, a woman who, unwittingly, makes everything about herself; she takes the blame for her son’s troubles, including the fact that he is “queer”, thereby arguing that nurture overcomes nature even in this purportedly natural world. She is divorced from Sam’s father, Tim, a man of few words and still fewer outward expressions of feelings, who believes that he can compensate for these shortcomings by splashing out money. Jonathan McGuinness has little to do as Tim sits on the sidelines, but he rises to the occasion when the character finally opens out, giving the play its most touching scene.

Ashna Rabheru gives a spirited performance as Sofia, Sam’s 18-year-old sister, who is worn down by constantly worrying about her unstable brother. Thomas seems less concerned with the specific details of the characters’ lives than with showing their relationships as being representative of family dynamics in a general sense and, to this limited extent, they occasionally come across as stereotypes. However, her approach works in asking the audience to identify with the family’s turmoil and thereby drawing us in. Maybe the overriding animal metaphor gets a little lost, but the writer creates an absorbing and moving piece that is laced generously with deft touches of humour.

Director Lucy Morrison leads us around this emotional rollercoaster with a carefully measured production which is more effective for being unshowy and allowing lucid writing and strong performances to carry it through. It is often claimed that brainpower is the only feature that distinguishes homo sapiens from the wider animal kingdom, but, after 80 minutes of sharing the emotions of the family in this play, we may wonder whether intelligence gives us any advantage at all.

Performance date: 24 February 2022

Never Not Once (Park Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisiafulli

Writer: Carey Crim

Director: Katharine Farmer

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Seated around three sides of an elegant and cosy room, audiences for American writer Carey Crim’s play Never Not Once may feel transported back in time. A Persian carpet is spread across the floor and framed prints are arranged tidily on the far wall, hanging above an invitingly comfortable sofa. Yet the traditional flavour of Roisin Martindale’s set design belies the very modern nature of the relationships seen in the play.

Eleanor (Meaghan Martin) is the teenage daughter of same sex parents who is about to become engaged to a fellow student, steady and dependable Rob (Gilbert Kyem). Her birth mother, Allison (Flora Montgomery), a former dancer, is reserved and slightly distant, unlike her partner, Nadine (Amanda Bright), a successful scientist, who is emotionally closer to Eleanor. Their home in Eastern USA is a picture of domestic bliss until Eleanor becomes obsessed with finding her father and hires a private detective to help her in achieving that goal.

Crim’s play starts out being about heritage and identity, but, once a can of worms has been opened, it moves in different, darker directions. Investigations point to Doug (Adrian Grove) as the likely father and disturbing revelations rock Eleanor’s world. The play crams a great deal of plot into barely 80 minutes of running time, but it has a storyline which could have been taken from a television soap opera and the challenge presented to director Katharine Farmer is to raise it above that level.

For three quarters of the drams, Farmer’s production is calm and absorbing, helped by commendably restrained performances, particularly from Montgomery and Bright. Even occasional dollops of American-style sentimentality prove to be only mildly irritating. Unfortunately, the final quarter comes close to risible melodrama, as Crim’s sole objective seems to become to show Doug squirming in repentance for past misdemeanours. The expected examination of the psychological effect on Eleanor of her discoveries fails to materialise; instead, she has an unconvincing panic attack, in response to which Nadine offers the useful advice: “keep breathing”.

Possibly Crim tries too hard to tie things up neatly, but it is disappointing that a drama which begins as a thoughtful account of the dilemmas thrown up by 21st Century relationships ultimately falls apart. The play deserves better.

Performance date: 11 February 2022