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Review: London Zoo (Southwark Playhouse, Borough)

Review by Harry Bower

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

At the turn of the century, print media was staring down the barrel of the gun at its own execution. With the world of online stealing increasingly large chunks of their revenue, publishing directors found themselves scrambling around for the scraps of a meal which was already three quarters eaten, with no chef available to replenish the buffet. It’s this context with which London Zoo frames its tale; a story of an acquisitions publisher buying successful brands, stripping them of their cost base, and bleeding them dry – the “slash and burn” strategy. 

 

London Zoo is set over twenty years ago and the themes explored are, thankfully, telling. A cast of six play out post-board meetings in which sexism runs rife, merger meetings laced with racism and throw mildly shocking and abrasive phrases at each other, in dialogue designed to reflect our animalistic tendencies when there’s a race to the top. Such discrimination is so blatant and obvious. Perhaps if an audience member had not lived through scenes like the ones playing out on stage, they might question the piece’s legitimacy or realism. Sadly though, they are well constructed depictions of a world which hasn’t entirely changed yet.



Diversity quotas, the back-stabbing nature of business, debate over editorial control versus pressure from advertisers; it’s all on the table in this piece, which does a good job of convincing us that “newspapers are run by people who don’t understand people”. Characters are a little two dimensional but are used as effective vehicles for landing thematic points. Writer Farine Clarke’s biography says they “don’t believe in telling audiences what they must or should think”; which is admirable – though the storytelling here leaves very little room for interpretation. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing and there is some provocation of thought about just how far we’ve come since the 1990s – or not – depending on the experiences of the audience members.

 

Performances are solid, particularly from Natalie Lauren as Arabella and Simon Furness as Charles. These are actors who impart an sense of meaningful depth to their characters, alluding to their lives and history with every glance and interaction. Both are blessed with natural and unassuming comic timing, They are the two best-written characters too, which helps; the rest of the cast struggle with two dimensional caricatures of assorted unlikable business folk.



The set, lighting, sound design, direction – it’s all fine – but this is not a play which relies upon gimmicks. It’s all about the verbal action. For me, the writing is a mixed bag. Dialogue is strong in some scenes, great in others. There is a little laughter, and it’s genuinely fun watching the intellectual battle between power-hungry directors. The overarching tale of power, money, discrimination, and human nature is timeless and well-worn, but unfortunately that means in parts it feels stale. It feels like this is a story we’ve heard many times before – probably because it is – and I found it difficult to identify what the writer was trying to say that is new, orchallenging in any way. Particularly with the context of technology, fake news, the battle for independent journalism in this era of bloated-content; it feels as though this is an old fashioned way of telling an old fashioned story. Themes explored are still relevant today, but in different ways. I think my biggest challenge with London Zoo, is that I’m not fully convinced that it is the correct vehicle to explore those themes.

 

London Zoo plays at Southwark Playhouse until 30 March. For more information visit: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/london-zoo/

 

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

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