Tuesday, April 14, 2015

'Animals' at Theatre503, 13th April 2015

Animals has a curdled heart. The play peeks into a dystopian future where anyone over 70 is ruthlessly terminated by the state unless their surviving relatives pay a hefty 'sentimental attachment fee'. Children are kept in a state of arrested development until their 18th birthday, spending their ignorant days literally swaddled in bubble wrap. Adults don't have it too much better, segregated by their economic utility and encouraged not to think - problematic individuals relegated to the level of 'comfort boys/girls' - or state sanctioned prostitutes.

Emma Adams' play follows a small group of people scratching out an existence in this nightmare world. The majority of the action takes place in the mouldy flat of Norma Pratt (Marlene Sidaway). At 77 she's a prime target for the deathsquads, surviving through a combination of self-confinement, incompetent officials and forged paperwork. She's a canny, domineering woman, easily cowing her 59 year old live-in helper Joy (Sadie Shimmin). Together with their next door neighbour, Helen (Cara Chase), the three make an uneasy trio - each conscious of their own impending execution by economics.

Outside this dingy little bubble there's bubbly Maya (Milly Thomas), who we're shocked to realise is just one day away from her 18th birthday. Despite her age she behaves as if she's about ten, dancing around like a hyperactive child. Her father, Noah (Steve Hansell), works as an inspector within the Utility Force, filling forms and checking boxes that dictate life and death.
L-R: Steve Hansell, Cara Chase, Sadie Shimmin and Marlene Sidaway
Each of these characters comes bundled with clearly laid out motivations - for the young it's to successfully graduate to adulthood and 'have fun'. For the adults it's to ensure that their child develops into a productive member of society with a full complement of happy memories. For the elderly it's to simply live another day. When they're thrown into the mix together, the result is a deeply funny and dark-as-all-hell exploration into life in an ultra-commodified society.

Adams' future Britain is the logical conclusion of the current Coalition government's propaganda. Their language of strivers and scroungers cuts ragged gashes across the whole of society, not only making implicit moral judgments on a person's worth vis a vis their contribution to the economy, but encouraging infectious divisions between the haves and have nots. Being told you're a striver is the political equivalent of a soapy titwank: "You work so hard, you should be so proud of yourself! You deserve everything!". Compare this to the demonisation of those on benefits, caricatured as feckless lumps of flesh.

This terrifying society is what happens when the economic rules of the market are applied to everyday life, something that's an ever-growing trend in the neo-liberal dogma that runs right through mainstream politics. What's being taught is an insidious lesson that you are a product to be marketed, other people are products to be acquired and our personal value is dictated to us by the slippery intangibility of the marketplace. 
Milly Thomas
As Animals explains, this leads to a homogenised society where headlines read "Fact! Thinking Causes Cancer!", negative words are banned (with consequent impact on crosswords) and empathy and ethics have been replaced with bovine submission to authority. In the casually murderous Utility Inspector we're confronted with the 'banality of evil'; the jobsworth who'd shoot a syringe of air into an old woman's veins for a paycheque.

In this world the social infection is so far gone that there can be no heroes. Everybody has absorbed the system of treating other human beings like chattel to such a degree that the most obscene acts become possible. These elderly women aren't heroines or freedom fighters, their story a lesson that to thrive within a monstrous system one must become a monster.

So yeah. It's a pretty cool piece of theatre. The entire cast acquit themselves well in the roles, with particular credit to Cara Chase and Milly Thomas. Chase cooks up a devilishly fun character in Helen; at first pleasant and upbeat, but then displaying a stone-cold survival instinct. I've seen few more memorable sights in theatre this year than Chase feverishly hoovering up a bag of 'billy' in an attempt to energise herself. Milly Thomas also impresses with her manic bundle of sweetness and light. Her Maya is adorable, but it's a skincrawlingly awkward adorable with a gross core of paedophilic just-plain-wrong right at the centre. She manages to pitch the character somewhere between sympathy and sadism - the audience basically wants Maya to be alright, but we don't mind too much if she gets traumatised along the way.

The only criticisms I can muster is a slight sagginess in the final act. Throughout the first act things are gradually building to some grotesque reveals, but once the cat is out of the bag there's a some unnecessary wheelspinning before the curtain. Similarly, despite the performances being uniformly great, the cast haven't quite gelled yet - though I'm confident this will happen as the run continues.

Animals is as funny as it is relevant, with a malevolent streak a mile wide. with its willingness to get weird, creative and disgusting it hit all my critical bases. A winner.


Animals is at Theatre503 until 2nd May 2015. Tickets here.

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