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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Human Animals is also a Court premiere for dramatist Stef Smith. Directed by Hamish Pirie, with Camilla Clarke’s extraordinarily active set starring on the other side of the Upstairs traverse, it’s hauntingly lit by Lizzie Powell. Six actors in this compressed dystopia of seventy-five minutes.


Stef Smith’s Human Animals is her premiere here, directed by Hamish Pirie, with Camilla Clarke’s extraordinarily active set – hauntingly lit by Lizzie Powell – starring on the other side of the Upstairs traverse. It doesn’t upstage the six actors in this compressed dystopia of seventy-five minutes, who knows how to draw space – as well as a serrated edge – from this superbly breathless speculation. In his hands the play delivers its mini-epic and return to partly living almost seamlessly.


Smith’s an Oliver-award winning dramatist though not yet sufficiently known, On the evidence of this work she’s an inspired descendant of dystopic writers – The Birds screeches somewhere in the distance – and in her often pared language Caryl Churchill, whose Far Away isn’t so far away from this speculative play about animals becoming the enemy, and draconian forces ranged against them. The rest is what we’ll soon identify as pure Smith.


It starts with a blatter of blood and feathers dropping onto the floor. Idealistic Jamie – Ashley Zhangazha – covers the unfortunate pigeon with an Edinburgh tea-towel his lover Lisa (Lisa McGrillis) complains about: she’s nowhere near as tender towards animals especially when Jamie nurses a second pigeon dying slowly in a box. A human animal she demands not just tenderness but sex, very bluntly, repeatedly.


It’s the first hint that the gradual encroachment of animals – foxes ruling streets, pigeon crashes, mice eating through walls – is answered with a human corollary, blood answering blood. ‘Don’t go burying wild animals in my garden… or at least ask for permission first.’ Lisa’s words bespeak scent and territory.


She’s interlinked and begins to identify with smooth chemical distributor Si ((Sargon Yelda) whom she goes to work for after Jamie quits his job alongside others as society breaks down, diseases cause the government to start massacring animals, torching parks and eventually homes.


The cast start intoning poetic sawn-off lyrical reflections studded throughout the drama, as if avatars themselves, a choric commentary that might irritate some but is effective and beautifully realised.


This rift in nature affects Stella Gonnet’s well-to-do-widow Nancy who gap-year daughter Alex (Natalie Drew) like Jamie becomes incensed and makes a stand as parks are torched and the zoo’s massacred.


Meanwhile Nancy’s bisexual friend John – assured resonant Ian Gelder – reaches out to her and Alex, though curiously bonds with Si, as the latter, divorced and unable to speak to his daughter stranded across the city, moves in on him.


By now blood’s sprayed on the windows and yellow paint, as chemical-suited figures move inexorably, spraying from behind. Flames whoosh behind the windows; more surprises abound.


Si will buy his daughter a guinea-pig when all’s over; he’s also central to this supply of chemicalised attrition. What doesn’t cohere in this animalising of humans to basis instinct is the kind of S/M sex, indeed violence John wishes to inflict on Si: the suggestion Si’s morally repugnant yet sexually attractive unleashes a rationale of savagery that doesn’t quite convince. A touch more development of both characters perhaps.


Jamie turns predictably into hoarder of wild aninals and manages to release them before the government torches his and Lisa’s whole house – which finally turns Lisa back towards him involving a small incident with a lion. The end’s surprisingly touching for all involved, including a scene when John agrees with the suicidal Nancy she should after all be free to take her own life and hands her a gun. Her late refusal to any violence echoing her daughter, and the normalising –though things can’t be the same – and rounding out of the six characters might be cosy but for a final choric epilogue involving Sloane Square itself.


There were times when Churchill’s recent Escaped Alone is evoked – with its memorable line ‘a kitten became famous’ – and Smith’s happily blessed with humour particularly in the relationships of lovers and mother/daughter. Gonnet shines as someone gradually watching the extinction of civilised values with the manicured hedges she and John share, and her exchanges with Gelder here as the most nuanced and developed in the play. Yedla’s Si is well-etched though as a baddie he’d not quite as developed, which is mostly true for Natalie dew’s Alex, whose one shadow in her self-righteous gap-year giving is her needlessly self-condemned lack of courage in the face of violence. McGrillis’ Lisa has far more of a journey circling back to Jamie, and their vulnerable affirmations satisfy whatever returns Smith wishes to make on the trudge back to being human. mostly engrossing, stunning in its explosions and set which doesn’t dwarf these etched-in people, Smith promises much more in amplitude than even this headlong pitch out of civilization and part-way back.