London Zoo, Southwark Playhouse

Monday 11th March 2024

Natalie Lauren, Harris Vaughan and Simon Furness in London Zoo. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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Before the internet, newspapers were central to the national conversation in Britain. By the first decade of the new millennium, however, the advent of social media and falling readerships together spelt decline for traditional print news. At the same time, the 1990s mania for corporate mergers was coming to a head. So, argues Farine Clarke in her play London Zoo at the Southwark Playhouse, the decline of newspapers was as much a result of the “greed is good” ideology as of the new media. Written in 2007, the play had its first rehearsed reading on zoom during the pandemic in 2021, and has since been developed and is now restaged in the Southwark’s small studio space.

Set in about 2002 in the offices of the fictional UK National News Group, a conglomerate which specializes in taking over newspapers and asset-stripping them for the benefit of shareholders rather than readers, the story features American Alex, a rampant capitalist CEO, and his sidekick Christian, a crude-minded sexist and ruthless operator. Supported by Sunil, another executive, they are opposed by other members of their board, namely chief accountant Charles and feisty Arabella, as they propose to takeover The Daily Word, a successful broadsheet paper run by publisher Kelvin.

The main conflict is that between Kelvin, who believes in investing in his staff, the journalists who provide content which is loved by his paper’s readers, and the asset-stripping Alex and Christian who simply want to make a quick profit. To do so, they plan to fire much of the paper’s staff, make money for the shareholders, and then move on after the title collapses. The flaw in this plotting is that Kelvin doesn’t realise this, or is so desperate for more investment that he doesn’t care. Neither option seems remotely credible, and this gives the play a rather empty centre.

Although this is a drama about news media, there is no discussion of populist journalism or of what quality writing actually is. Instead, all we see are the manoeuvring of the board members, with the oily Christian manipulating the older Charles into creating blatantly optimistic accounts for the takeover, knowing that the true financial figures are much less attractive. While I am sure that this happens, the play’s Charles character seems much too gullible and amoral to be credible, while his ally, the disillusioned Arabella, never delivers the plot’s necessary moral reversal.

The cynicism of the board’s activities, which involve an inner and outer circle like that of Regent’s Park (a lame metaphor which provides the play’s title as London Zoo cannot be so easily located in either sector), shows Sunil in as bad a light as the bullish Alex and Christian. The trouble with all of this material is that it is depressingly familiar, and that Clarke has nothing new to say about it: okay, corporate big shots are ruthless and sexist — Christian’s stated reasons for male dominance of boardrooms and women’s inabilities in business is overtly stupid and certainly completely unacceptable. But this is hardly news. Nor is it comic.

The play leaves such sexist prejudices unchallenged, which is a bit unsatisfying, even though the audience can see that Clarke thinks they are not only reprehensible, but mindlessly brutal. London Zoo does, however, briefly spark into provocative life when her Sunil character, who is a sophisticated Asian, is revealed to be racist towards Kelvin, who happens to be black. As the programme says, “prejudice is not simply black and white”, but this potentially interesting theme is not developed, and remains a sole moment of emotional tension in a short 110-minute evening of rather dull playwriting.

Worst of all, the play has a ludicrous ending, when an act of senseless and wildly improbable violence is used to bring the plot to a climax. Like a lot that happens in this story it is neither credible as fact, nor satisfying as fiction. Apart from some lines, such as the rather controversial point about “the abused becoming the abuser” to describe an Asian racist, and a few jokes about emojis, much of Clarke’s writing is banal and lacking in individuality. Her picture of boardroom infighting lacks tension, and the play has no characters, apart from Kelvin (whose part is small), who you can really root for. Everyone seems to be a shit.

Despite some promising passages, such as those about Sunil’s childhood and his astute manipulation of English public-school symbols and values, and some important themes, such as workplace bullying, the play has little to say about today’s media, or today’s workplaces. Sadly, for a comedy, it is almost entirely devoid of laughs. Farine’s production, which she herself directs, fails to create the classy workplace in which the story is set, and the lack of a designer means that the office and club in which the action takes place look more like an impoverished university classroom.

With a totally unnecessary 20-minute interval, which further saps whatever energy the piece ever had, all that’s left is the acting, which is mostly valiant rather than inspired. Harris Vaughan’s bully-boy Christian and Dan Saski’s loud-mouthed Alex embody the caricature villains of the piece, while Natalie Lauren and Simon Furness as Arabella and Charles struggle to convince us that they are genuinely good people trapped in a bad system. In a similar way, Anirban Roy’s Sunil is super smooth and Odimegwu Okoye’s Kelvin is the one attractive and principled character. But it’s not enough. A very disappointing evening.

© Aleks Sierz

1 Comment

  • Derek Smith commented

    on Wednesday 20th March 2024 at 4:54 pm

    I agree, it was an exceptionally disappointing play with the second half degenerating into a commentary on what is to be a wealthy white man that has been excluded from the inner circle.

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