Animal 2

Review of Animal at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester.

David is a 25 year old gay man with a lot of sexual urges – he also has a wheelchair and round-the-clock care support. David’s domestic set up doesn’t exactly lend itself to spontaneous casual encounters. When flatmate Jill isn’t around, care assistant Derek is on hand – and without them, David would struggle to eat, drink or even shower.

After a failed fumble with an Autosuck, he is encouraged by friends to head online and download Grindr – and a whole world of messy experiences awaits him.

Winner of Hope Mill Theatre’s Through The Mill Prize for new writing, Jon Bradfield’s Animal was developed with significant input from disability and LGBTQI+ activist Josh Hepple. Both were keen to ensure that David wouldn’t be an angel or a victim, or “somehow represent disabled people”.

Bradfield successfully navigates such pitfalls, creating a complex fully-rounded central character. David is proud, driven and funny – and when he wants to be, he can be charming and deeply interested in others. However, he can also be selfish and cruel.

There’s no shortage of comings and goings at David’s flat, and designer Gregor Donnelly’s compact sliding door set allows characters to pop in and out seamlessly from the hallway, kitchen and bedrooms.

Members of David’s tight-knit circle of friends, family and support are well-drawn. Bradfield’s writing even manages to give definition to the new, more fleeting, visitors that Grindr brings to David’s door – the light, friendly practiced ease of an older married gay man, checking that his husband’s shopping list is up to date in between going down on David – or the grubby, downhearted bloke who is almost anticipating being knocked back, as he stashes his bag of reduced price meat in the flat’s fridge.

Both men are brought clearly into view by William Oxborrow who, like several of his fellow actors, is called on to deliver multiple roles. Bradfield’s play is served well by the committed cast. Amy Loughton (Jill) and Matt Ayleigh (Derek) capture some of the tensions and struggles of trying to be a genuine friend to someone you provide care for, when you also rely on them for employment or a roof over your head. Harry Singh makes a strong impression as both Jill’s nice but slightly dim boyfriend Michael, and David’s best friend, social butterfly Mani (preferred pronouns “He-him. Or they. Or her holiness. If you like”).

Accessing his Grindr account isn’t an issue for David, who is used to tapping away on his mobile phone. What he is less prepared for, is the way people interact with each other within the strange unspoken rules of the app.

Matt Powell’s video projections vividly bring David’s online communications to life. Big colourful boxes of text, blown-up muscle-packed profile images, and scrolling messages all loom large – flowing down and across the flat’s walls and doors – mirroring David’s increasingly absorbed gaze.

Bradfield captures perfectly the breezy, vapid shorthand of online encounters, the casual indifference it can breed, and the pervasive ghosting. There’s something soul-destroying about seeing (and hearing) David’s open-hearted hopeful messages diminish in size, as they go continuously unanswered. Full sentences fold down into single words – hello – hi – and then a lonely echoing question mark ?

One of Animal’s strengths is the play’s ability to weave in so many elements – there’s the domestic dramas, online entanglements, the casual callers, dizzy highs and crashing come-downs – without it being jarring. Incredibly insightful without feeling issue-driven, there’s a clear sense of some of the challenges and barriers David faces, but such details arise naturally from within the narrative. Bradfield even manages to incorporate a particularly dark and distressing scene, without it feeling out of place.

Only once, close to the end, do things go awry. When a house party dissolves over-dramatically into arguments and recriminations, the scenario just feels contrived – in a way that everything that’s gone before did not.

For all its ability to engage thoughtfully with some of the issues it tackles, Animal’s default setting is to be entertaining. Bradfield can certainly do funny. There are some cracking one-liners, and the script is generous in sharing the laughs out among the cast and characters.

Bronagh Lagan’s energetic and well-paced production is uproariously funny, touchingly tender, and unexpectedly revealing.

At the heart of it all is David, and Christopher John-Slater gives a wonderfully rich and subtle central performance. For David, one of the unexpected benefits of finally having sex is the physical after-effects, and the impacts on his cerebral palsy – his voice becomes clearer, and his muscles relax. Pleasure can also bring on involuntary movements, and there are times when, for a few glorious moments, John-Slater’s David appears to vibrate with pure joy.

Hope Mill Theatre .

Performance seen on 14 March 2023.

Animal runs at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester from 9 March 2023 to 2 April 2023.

Transfers to Tobacco Factory, Bristol from 12 to 15 April 2023.  Then at Park Theatre, London from 19 April 2023 to 20 May 2023.

Ticket prices at Hope Mill Theatre from £20.50.

Images by Piers Foley


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