Review by Daz Gale
Park Theatre in London is on a real winning streak at the moment with both spaces inside the venue in Finsbury Park consistently impressing reviewers from this website. Hoping to continue that trend is ANIMAL - a show that has already won a prize, been shortlisted for another and enjoyed rave reviews for its run in Manchester. Can it repeat that success as it makes its London debut or should this show have stayed caged?
Having won the Through The Mill Prize and been shortlisted for the Papatango Prize, this brand new play explores how disability, sexuality and lust co-exist for people who require round the clock assistance, Telling the story of David who is gay, disabled and eternally horny, we see his exploits as he downloads Grindr and opens up a world of possibilities full of highs and lows.
Written by Jon Bradfield from a story originated by Josh Hepple, this refreshing and authentic story hopes to challenge stereotypes and predetermined notions people might have when it comes to those with disabilities. While David has cerebral palsy, his character is not defined by this. Instead, this is a play about Davids humanity, unafraid to show his flaws as a person and his desires. This breaking down the barriers while acknowledging the obstacles he has to face and what makes his life difficult is key to what makes this show resonate so effectively.
Jon Bradfield's writing is incredible throughout the entirety of ANIMAL. A far too accurate depiction of the sinkhole that can be Grindr, the story is told with a brutal realism thanks to the genius of the writing. Regularly funny, there are some real laugh out loud moments and some seriously blue humour that is guaranteed to make you gag. Alongside this, ANIMAL is a show full of heart – when it gets to the more sombre and emotional moments of the story, it really tugs at the heartstrings thanks to the truly powerful writing.
The lead role of David is played by Christopher John-Slater who effortlessly keeps the audience in the palm of his hand with a nuanced performance full of different extremities. Expertly navigating David's quest to quench his need for release with a deeply fleshed out characterisation as he struggles with the limitations of his life, Christophers acting is always sensational and plays to his strengths as an actor. Some of his quieter moments elevate the performance with his reactions speaking volumes when words aren’t necessary.
While this is David's story, it is down to a cast of six to turn this into a grand ensemble story. Amy Loughton is a delight as the no-nonsense Jill whose life has been dominated by David. It isn’t a case of life imitating art though as Amy breaks away from this to make the character her own. Matt Ayleigh has less of an ark in comparison as Derek but makes the most of this with some brilliant comedic moments, also becoming a completely different character in the shows most uncomfortable moment. William Oxborrow gets to play a variety of men David meets on Grindr… as well as his dad, always maximising his fleeting but fabulous appearances on stage.
Joshua Liburd is a standout as Liam, David's complicated love interest. The perfect companion for Davids story, he does a fantastic job demonstrating those who seemingly have it all from the outside may have their own inner demons you aren’t familiar with. His performance is sweet and loveable, leaving you rooting for the pair to work it out. The cast is completed by Harry Singh in two very different roles, each equally scene-stealing. Whether playing Jills boyfriend Michael, complete with his own unique movements or David's best friend Mani, Harry gives a performance that demands all eyes are on him and is undoubtedly one of the strongest elements of the show.
Bronagh Logans direction ensures the action plays out beautifully with a limited stage set up transforming itself to give the actors plenty of scope to play with – though really all they need are themselves, such is the calibre of their performances. Gregor Donnelly’s set design paired with some truly fantastic video design from Matt Powell and Derek Anderson's lighting creates a visually stunning show.
At its best, theatre can be thought provoking, challenging our own perceptions and perhaps in certain extreme cases our own unconscious prejudices. This is something ANIMAL does with ease. While David's cerebral palsy is a key factor in the story, it doesn’t define him or the story. The writing and the story itself challenges this in a way that becomes so much more than it appears to be on the surface.
At its heart, this is a play about humanity and how we all have the same needs deep down, no matter what attributes are unique to us in a show that is refreshingly accessible to everyone. In that respect, the cast and creatives have presented something as beautiful as it powerful. I found myself so invested in David (as well as the other characters) and was longing for him to get his happy ending. Warm, witty and wonderful, ANIMAL is a show that will penetrate your heart and make you explode with joy and love.
ANIMAL plays at Park Theatre until 20th May with tickets at https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/animal/
Photos by Piers Foley
Every performance of ANIMAL will be an environment where people can freely express themselves and experience the show according to their needs. Additional wheelchair spaces will be available at each performance and specific relaxed or semi-relaxed performances are available along with advance notice of any sensory triggers. There will also be audio-described, captioned and touch tour performances.