Having recently spent a few weeks in Costa Rica, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, I was fortunate enough to see at least some of one of the most extensive ranges of wildlife anywhere on Earth. There are 850 species of birds alone (10% of the entire avian population), not to mention sloths, crocodiles, iguanas, armadillos, poison dart frogs, tapirs, the Jesus lizard (it walks on water), coatimundis, jaguars, whales, and three indigenous species of monkey. And yes I did see all but one of that little list. So, it was with a degree of interest that I approached a new play by Ruby Thomas called The Animal Kingdom currently showing at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs and gathering a good deal of critical acclaim.
This is only Thomas’s second play (her first, Either, started life at the same venue) and looks at one particular animal species – the human animal. The setting is a series of family group therapy sessions precipitated by the actions of the son Sam who is studying for a zoology degree at university. Or at least he was until a tragic series of events (not particularly hard to guess at) lead him to a spell in a psychiatric unit. Now as part of the exit strategy, divorced mum and dad, Rita and Tim and younger sister Sophie are brought in to rake over the past and expel any demons which led to Sam’s breakdown. The sessions are led by kindly counsellor Daniel. The five actors form a tight ensemble and work with a degree of intensity which carefully charts the progress of the various sessions; often scenes start partway through a session and the cast are adept at switching their mood almost instantaneously.
There’s an absolutely stand out performance from Ragevan Vasan who is onstage throughout. He is the errant son who twitches and blinks and struggles for articulacy in the earlier scenes as he tries to come to terms with what he has done both to himself and to his family. But Vasan is no one trick pony (a bit of a cliché but there’s so much animal imagery in the piece, one more won’t tip the balance) and manages a subtle transition to a place of greater calm as the therapy works its magic. This is definitely a young actor to watch. Not far behind is the very well realised portrait of a mother in distress but trying not to show it from Martina Laird. She is revealed as a doula (a provider of emotional and spiritual support during pregnancy/birth) but is patently unable to manage her own family life. Laird demonstrates Rita’s fragility in a long confession about days when she hides under a duvet and her utter conviction that she is responsible for the way Sam is; cleverly though Laird suggests that the character thinks events are all about herself rather than concentrating on the needs of her son.
As if these two winning performances aren’t enough, the rest of the cast are no slouches either as in turn they all get to reveal their own demons and problems – even Paul Keating’s counsellor is still in mourning for a lost family member. Ashna Rabheru as sister Sophie says little at first but a carefully controlled but no less devastating bomb is set off when she confesses to actually hating Sam. Even more quiet and reserved (i.e., emotionally repressed) is father Tim. Usually played by Jonathan McGuiness he was replaced last night with a script in hand Paul Hickey when Covid did its dirty work. Considering the minimal rehearsal which Hickey had been able to have it was another fine turn – just as well though that the character is a man of few words.
The play is shot through with animal imagery and if that occasionally seems a trifle forced, it’s a clever idea which references the group dynamics of various fauna and shows that humans can be little better than their animal counterparts. The piece runs straight through, as indeed it needs to in order to retain the pressure cooker atmosphere but if you’re expecting a lot of screaming and shouting – as I admit I did – then think again. Yes, there are moments like that, but director Lucy Morrison has taken her cast on a subtler journey and some of the quieter moments are all the more devastating for it. The audience sitting on three sides of the stage become silent observers as the painful process is worked through. We are just like visitors at a zoo and watch intently as the family’s background is forensically examined. There but for the grace of God …. or who/whatever came up with the whole bestiary of existence.