Review by Harry Bower
There’s an undeniable shift in society towards plant-based diets, a growing consciousness about the impacts of animal agriculture and the ethics in killing animals for food. It’s in that context, with Veganuary in full swing, that Grace Joy Howarth’s Blood On Your Hands opens at Southwark Playhouse. The name of the play suggests this piece might be a relatively predictable telling of animal injustice, but it is actually much more complex.
It's Wales in February 2022, just a few weeks prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We meet Kostyantyn, an emotionally torn Ukrainian veterinarian who moves to the UK to fund an eventual better life for his pregnant wife and their children.The reality of this pursuit slams home when he finds himself living in a packed house with eight others, freezing cold and only able to take a zero-hour contract at the local abattoir. There he meets Dan, a Welsh stereotype, already an abattoir veteran at twenty-five. He failed his English GCSEs, is stuck in his hometown while ex-school mates hold fancy jobs in the city, and generally feels like life has let him down. Over successive lunch breaks they warm to each other, Dan taking Kostyantyn under his wing and showing him the ropes in the oppressive, inhospitable, corporate machine they work for.
The bromance between the pair spawns some of the best dialogue in the show; their relationship genuine, heartfelt, and well-written. Sarcastic remarks fly around, but there is sensitivity there too, mixed in amongst the regularly misunderstood English phrase or saying. So good are those scenes, in fact, that it’s mildly disappointing when the plot detours with messy flashbacks while attempting to keep concurrent backstories going. Themes and relationships blurso much that at times it’s hard to fully grasp where all of this is heading, and the pace of jumps on the timeline leave the audience with theatrical whiplash. Some really intriguingthreads are frayed just as interest is piqued.
Sometimes it seems as though this is a play about animal cruelty and the psychological impact of working in an abattoir for a corporation which promises you nothing except a zero hour contract and one free introductory counselling session. Other times it seems as though it is a tale of immigration, of wanting for a better life and escaping war; of the unfairness of being helplessly trapped while those around you make decisions for you. And other times it strays into themes of activism, online radicalisation, and injustice. At times I wondered if the central story was actually the geographical deprivation in small-town Wales. It’s a bit all over the place and leaves you scratching your head, and not in a good way. The play does focus in on one of the above storylines, sort of, towards the end; but it’s too little too late.
With such a cramped staging layout and narrow entrances it’s hard for the production to achieve some of its dramatic and impactful scenes with full effect. Props seem cheap and basic, with knives which wobble when thrust into the air. Projection has both voyeuristic aesthetic appeal as well as serving a critical function, progressing the timeline, but is underused in its contribution to the narrative. It fuels the feeling that these tales would benefit from more joined-up thinking, rather than adding to the incoherence. Sound design by The Araby Bazaar is a standout success, and performances are strong throughout; Phillip John Jones’ comic timing is essential light relief.
By far and away the best scene in the piece depicts the ‘killing floor’ of the abattoir, Dan and Kostyantyn slashing away at imaginary animals, blood and guts pouring onto the floor and plastic sheeting. It is genuinely disturbing and brilliantly done. Pools of blood remain and are walked in for the following few scenes; blood not just on your hands but your feet too, as the characters continue to walk on the sins of their past.
There are so many nuances in stories of war, immigration, animal welfare, the ethics of killing animals for food, activism, the corporate machine – it would be impossible to expect a play to cover them all. But that’s exactly what Blood On Your Hands attempts. It leaves you desperate for more from some of its relationships, and apathetic about some of the bigger, more challenging themes. At one hour forty minutes it could easily be twenty minutes shorter. Its ending is, at least in cannon, probably the right one. But in the context of the different themes we explore together, for the audience it doesn’t feel entirely satisfactory. The whole thing feels a little bit unfinished. There is definite sparkle here, hidden in the rough.
In the programme notes, theatre company Patch Plays writes: “attending a night at the theatre might not seem like you’re saving the world, but Patch Plays hopes to platform important stories that can start a conversation and inspire a little positive change”. As my friend and I left the theatre we began the conversation I imagine many audiences will have, about abattoirs and the horrors that go on within. Blood On Your Hands will continue to inspire and mould those conversations because at its core it is theatrical activism. With a bit of polish, it could have a far greater impact than many of its counterparts.
Blood On Your Hands plays at Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 03 February 2024. For more information and tickets visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/blood-on-your-hands/
Photos by Charles Flint