Bristol Theatre Reviews

Review: Animal at Tobacco Factory Theatres

  • Animal is a defiantly bold, honest and entertaining ride navigating the authentic complexities of relationships around friendship, sex and disability
  • It’s on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 15 April 2023

When Jill asks David if he understands that people can be ‘flaky’ David gets this. Autistic people in the audience may have found this baffling. What is this flaky? And here lies some of the interesting themes layered into this surprisingly complex piece of theatre.

David has cerebral palsy. This means he has difficulties with speech, movement and coordination and is a wheelchair user. In the finely nuanced language and varying views of disability communities – which is in no way uniform with its use of language – David says this is an impairment.

We are introduced quite early into the play that the story is told through the social model of disability – this means that disabled people are disabled because of systemic barriers rather than individual impairments.

It’s also done through Twitter graphics of a talk David has done, showing that despite his impairment, he is a fiercely independent young man. This is why threats of social services to come later from his friends hit hard. Particularly in Bristol, where a new ‘Fair and Affordable care policy’ could see independent disabled people forced from their homes and into residential care.

But what Animal actually centres on is David, a funny, sharp, quite sarky young man. He’s a well rounded overall likeable character played by Christopher John-Slater with great zest.

Whilst yes David does have moments of vulnerability – mostly from the potential dangers meeting up with strangers off the internet for casual sex – he doesn’t evoke that head-tilting condescending sympathy. This is entirely due to the ‘nothing about us without us’ writing of Jon Bradfield with development by disability activist Josh Hepple.

David wants to hook up with men on Grindr, somewhat of a challenge when he needs support around the clock from personal assistants. What results is an exploration of relationships not just with men meeting up for casual sex, but also the nature of relationships between friends.

Amy Loughton plays Jill, David’s live-in friend and full-time carer. She’s warm and caring. There’s a lot of friendly banter between them but whilst it’s funny, it’s not played for laughs. It’s a full-spectrum friendship with the quiet, every day moments as well as that of high drama.

One of the most understated but strangely compelling moments comes between the two when David shows worry about a bug in a terrarium she has brought home for him from work. It’s a something and nothing moment but is what plants this play into the everyday.

There is the quietly reassuring presence of Derek throughout. A currently out-of-work actor supplementing his income with care work. He is paid by David to be a personal assistant. Come the end is he a friend? Is he a care worker? Matt Ayleigh certainly nails that quiet earnestness found amongst support workers with extreme accuracy.

Liam -played by Joshua Liburd – is not just the flaky, hot, gay hook-up he’s presumed to be. He’s plagued by his own self esteem issues and needing time to himself. What initially seems like ghosting is actually his own self-doubt and mental health difficulties.

But it’s his ‘flakiness’ that sees David marooned alone on a train sailing out of London – a very real and frightening situation experienced by disabled people on the rail network every single day.

The scene does well to illustrate that for disabled people, so much planning and preparation has to go into doing things like this safely and reliably. Even a walk in a park.

There are strong themes in the play around internet hook-ups and safety. It’s not David’s impairment that makes him entirely vulnerable to issues around this – other than not being able to meet in public places. It’s more the nature of Grindr. When you Deliveroo a stranger to your door, you have no idea what’s going to turn up nor how to get rid of it.

William Oxborrow’s range of characters illustrate this perfectly. Particularly Meat Man.

Harry Singh is a ball of big energy as Mani, David’s best friend. He’s also gay, likes to party and tries to be the friend he wants to be for David whilst not quite managing to balance this out against his own needs and desires.

In the final scene, he also serves to be the voice of Twitter Communities with his explanation around why David might have behaved the way he has. A point countered by the livid Jill as she says he’s gone through the ‘woke door’.

The design on this play is stunning. Matt Powell’s video design gives life to online communities, chats and reactions right in front of us. It blends perfectly with Gregor Donnelly’s set, particularly in the train scene.

It’s not an entirely resolved end to the play. Not everything is wrapped up neatly for the audience but then life is the same. Rarely is there closure after drama, which in 2023 comes with ghosting and blocking.

Animal is not political. It’s not an extended lecture in condescension nor presents disability as a black and white sob story with tinkly music over the top. It’s nuanced storytelling about a young man living his life as he sees fit, surrounded by those with his ‘best interests at heart’. Which presents challenges when you need their support but also waiting for a randomer off Grindr to appear.

Animal is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 15 April 2023

For more information or to book:

David – Christopher John-Slater
Liam – Joshua Liburd
Jill – Amy Loughton
Derek/Nuno – Matt Ayleigh
Mani/Michael – Harry Singh
Rob/Ray/Alan/Dad – William Oxborrow

Writer – Jon Bradfield
Story – Jon Bradfield, Josh Hepple
Director – Bronagh Lagan
Producer – Daniel Cooper
Set and Costume Designer – Gregor Donnelly
Video Designer – Matt Powell

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