Human Animals, Royal Court London, theatre review: A very promising debut

Fluent and cannily pitched

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 24 May 2016 15:20 BST
Ian Gelder and Stella Gonet play the leads in Stef Smith’s impressive debut
Ian Gelder and Stella Gonet play the leads in Stef Smith’s impressive debut

The disturbing and the dotty, queasiness and quirkiness mingle arrestingly in Human Animals, the play with which Stef Smith makes her impressive Royal Court debut In the first jolting moments of Hamish Pirie’s fluent, cannily pitched production, bird gunk splatters the windows and a bundle of avian viscera plummets to floor. A young couple, Jamie and Lisa, discover a dead pigeon on their sitting room carpet. “Thank God I got that power hose last winter,” middle-aged John tells his widowed neighbour Nancy as they contemplate the 80-odd feathered friends that have amassed on his decking.

You might briefly think that we’re in Hitchcock territory in this overcrowded city where nature seems to be getting out of control. But the political dimension to the story soon becomes apparent. When Nancy’s daughter Alex returns from a gap year, she’s warned not to go out into the back garden until “environmental control have made sure that there aren’t any foxes in our shrubs”. Bit by bit, through the divergent reactions of the six characters to the escalating emergency, we see how the authorities exploit the fear of infection as a way of enforcing obedience from a population that, by and large, would prefer the entire animal kingdom to be exterminated than feel unsafe themselves.

As a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and the hysteria whipped up against minorities, this has obvious force – and there are moments when the piece spells out its message too plainly. I also wondered what had happened to all the militant animal rights activists. The protesters here are the generally discontented, well-meaning Alex (finely played by Natalie Dew) who joins the struggle to stop the local park from being burnt down and Ashley Zhangazha’s gentle Jamie who sees through the political pretence and starts to save as many animals as he can secrete in his shed.

In general, though, the tone deftly encompasses the horror (highlighted in the play's choric passages) and the slightly batty humour in this dystopian scenario. Stella Gonet and Ian Gelder are very funny and touching as a pair of old friends. She’s taking the Prozac that the vet prescribed for the cat when it got depressed after her husband died (“Is it the same as humans’'?” ”I hope so” ; he's a cantankerous loner who's come to distrust his self-sufficiency. That doesn’t stop him from brusquely spurning the overtures made by the inscrutable Si (Sargon Yelda), now cut off from visiting his little daughter by the closure of roads crossing the river (“Something to do with spores”) and amenable to the destruction of park and wildlife “for the greater good”.

There’s a murky figure in a hazard suit on the other side of the windows; footage of scuttling insects; a sudden fall of ash; creeping creatures in green-lit perspex boxes. Greatly expediting the pace and the pliancy of the proceedings, Camilla Clarke’s brightly coloured composite set has a strange smack of hamster cage. A very promising debut that the Royal Court has done proud.

To 18 June; 020 7565 5000

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