The Animal Kingdom – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Ruby Thomas

Director: Lucy Morrison

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.

Runs until 26 March 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Absorbing family drama

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