With a disabled protagonist front and centre, Animal does a lot of good work at Park Theatre but is ultimately let down by its writing
“I want to know what it feels like”
Written by Jon Bradfield from a story by Bradfield and Josh Hepple, there’s clearly stirringly great intent behind Animal. A play unafraid to centre a disabled protagonist who is spiky and difficult as well as being funny and charming when he wants to be. A play that seeks to represent just a smidgen of the authentic reality of gay hookups via Grindr. It’s also a play that references Ray Cooney, only by mention rather than in spirit thankfully!
In some ways, it achieves all that. David is a 25-year-old gay man with cerebral palsy severe enough that he can’t eat, drink or shower by himself. He’s also a virgin who has never been kissed and he’s determined to rectify this, come hell or highwater. And so he downloads the app and enters the unforgiving world of Grindr which can be a minefield even if you’re drop dead gorgeous, never mind in a wheelchair. David has the bonus of being well-hung though, he just needs someone to take the pics for him…
Bronagh Lagan’s production captures a great sense of what technology has done to the art of hooking up, aided by brilliant projection work from Matt Powell. The way language is degraded to a series of ‘Hi’s’, the ease with which messages are blocked or ignored, the mini-dramas that can play out when someone eventually does turn up as desire and desperation come into play. Refracted through the prism of someone living with the condition CP, it’s eye-opening and tragicomic in equal measure and more widely, a knowing indictment of the obsession for so many with dick size.
David’s travails are contrasted with the other relationships in his life, most notably with his best friend and live-in assistant Jill – Christopher John-Slater and Amy Loughton demonstrating great chemistry together, comedy of varying degrees of sharpness bouncing entertainingly between them. And as both parties find their way towards potential romantic relationships, there’s something interesting in the struggle to reposition their roles given the complexity of their co-dependent connection.
But despite all of this, something about Animal never really roars into life dramatically, the tangents it takes rarely igniting the complex debates it brushes past. Notions of self-loathing, the tension between physical and emotional dependency on the non-disabled for the disabled, the bitterness of betrayal. Most glaringly, a scene of sexual assault is introduced then abandoned with jaw-dropping glibness, it’s a painfully awful and irresponsible moment which mars so much of that good initial intent.