Animals, Theatre 503

Monday 13th April 2015

Animals. Photo: Richard Davenport
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With the opening of April De Angelis’s new play, After Electra, last week, the theme of old age has finally hobbled into London theatres. It is a timely issue, and one which will be more and more relevant as our increasingly ageing population grows. This theme has also arrived at the fringe venue Theatre 503, which has a great record of developing young writers, and now turns its attention to more senior citizens. Associate artistic director Lisa Cagnacci’s first in-house production is an imaginatively satirical play about ageing with a cast of actors, some in their 60s and 70s, whose ages are close to those depicted in the text.

The time is the year 2046; the place is Yorkshire, which has just survived a flood of biblical proportions. Emma Adams’s story pictures a state in which the over-60s are terminated and the under-18s protected from all knowledge of life, while the all-powerful Utility sends out inspectors to assess the usefulness to society of an impoverished population. In this world, 77-year-old Norma only manages to get by because she cheats on her documentation and, with help from her similarly senior carer Joy and neighbour Helen, runs a black market in restricted goods, with Joy additionally providing sexual services to some of the local men.

Set in Norma’s flood-stained and beautifully squalid living room, designed by Max Dorey — who also provides a screen that enables quick changes of location to the outdoors — the play begins by evoking the bickering lifestyle of the three old women. Gradually a sense emerges that although the dystopian Utility controls all aspects of life, these women are running a resistance cell. They organise a black market in essentials, take drugs such as speed, and avoid the involuntary euthanasia stipulated by law.

Their lives are threatened by the arrival of Noah, a new inspector, who is itching to issue the red permit that means termination, unless the object of his suspicions can pass a “reading”. At first, however, he is distracted from his job by looking after Maya, his daughter, who is only one day away from her 18th coming-of-age birthday. Like other children in this repressive future, she has been protected from all thoughts about sex, and her language has been policed in an Orwellian fashion to prevent her from questioning the status quo. When Noah begins his investigations, and she inadvertently goes missing, things begin to escalate out of control.

Animals is coherently imagined, and astringent in its satire. It looks at old age with unsentimental and unpatronising eyes, offering recognisably wry and vivacious dialogue as well as some strong political points. I liked its surreal oddity and cranky individuality. Likewise, Cagnacci’s production is full of black humour and successfully racks up the tension as Norma’s abode is revealed to be a gothic house of horrors, with nods to Sweeney Todd and even Spartacus. Music by Timon Wapenaar adds to the memorably moody atmosphere. The older cast members Marlene Sidaway (Norma), Sadie Shimmin (Joy) and Cara Chase (Helen) make a good contrast to Steve Hansell (Noah) and the youthful and ebullient Milly Thomas (Maya). If the play is slightly over-written, especially at the end, its vision remains strong, cogent and darkly entertaining.

© Aleks Sierz

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