It’s always good to see theatre being used as a forum to explore difficult topics and give a voice to underrepresented sections of society. In the case of Animals, the latest play from Emma Adams performed at Theatre 503, it’s the elderly who are put centre stage. It’s rare to see many actors over the age of sixty on stage beyond bit-parts, so Adams should certainly be commended for her work here, with a very capable cast.
The crumbling, burnt and decaying set inside a bungalow gives an immediate sense of the dystopia the audience are thrown into. This is (according to the script) a “once respectable market town in North Yorkshire” in the year 2046 after “the ‘sea arrived’”. In this future world, the population are graded on their ability to contribute to society. For the young, they are wrapped (literally) in bubble wrap until their eighteenth birthday where a test will determine their worth. For those over sixty, coloured permits are handed out by the ‘Utility Force’ – red means involuntary euthanasia, unless they can pass a ‘reading’ (often aided by some Class A drugs). Psychological conditioning is rife; language is heavily scrutinised; and the elderly are far more intelligent, cunning and devious than the government give them credit for.
There are, then, some interesting concepts hidden away in the depths of Adams’ script, but Animals is something of a theatrical mess. For starters, many of the above details are not clearly defined for the audience. Instead, we must piece together this dystopia for ourselves. It’s not only confusing, it lacks credibility. Despite some intriguing ideas, this is not ultimately a believable world, which somewhat undermines the plot.
The plot, too, is confusing. Adams has attempted to construct a grim, futuristic fairytale involving three witch-like old women and some real-life cannibalism. Then there’s an oddly girlish teenager obsessed with a balloon, her patronising Utility Force father, and a huge dose of surreal weirdness. Thanks to a clunky and wordy script, the interactions between characters don’t feel believable – something that’s not helped by actors frequently stumbling over lines. This is a bizarre script that’s in dire need of editing.
Mostly, it’s the juxtapositions and shifts of tone that are predominantly at fault. There are moments of black comedy, mixed with a murderous thriller and a dark fairytale, accompanied by a chip tune soundtrack. But Sweeney Todd this isn’t. The tonal concoction of satire and anger shatters any sympathy we may have for the characters and never finds a balanced middle ground. Instead, Animals feels awkward and fails to put its topical points across in a lucid manner.
Watch: Animals runs at Theatre 503 until 2nd May.
Photos: Richard Davenport