The Drugs Don't Work

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Review of ’Animal‘ by Kay Adshead, Soho Theatre, London

’On the street side the wooden gate is covered in flowers, when they wilt people come and put others, they nail them to the planks ... There‘s a tiny hand-knitted cardie with bloody cuffs, and a shoe with a bloody lace ... At the very front, sat in a deckchair like she‘s on Brighton beach, is the mother of one of the kids trampled to death by the horses ... It‘s very quiet but her lips are moving all the time.‘ The nurse Elmo sets the scene for Kay Adshead‘s new play Animal.

This is a dark, wildly surreal play. The production is highly stylised. The monochrome set is a single empty room, with a backdrop of CCTV images depicting fits of rage. But, though depicting a bizarre dream world, Animal confronts us with the truth of our reality.

The play takes place amid growing civil unrest, initially taking the form of peace protests against an unjustified war. The wooden gate Elmo refers to is the gate to a London park, much like Hyde Park. It replaced a steel gate which, along with police horses, crushed an anti-war protest, killing children who had walked out of school.

The play is set in the middle of this park, in a residential psychiatric hospital, where the Pharmaceutica Corporation is testing a new anger-management drug. It is centred around Pongo, who, after living on the streets for 30 years, is now one of their guinea pigs. As the horrific side effects of TR14 become clear, writer Kay Adshead confronts us with the all too familiar sight of scientific test results being distorted so as to maximise profit. Elmo, also a part-time comedian, jokes about the plethora of new ’mental illnesses‘ that are being ’discovered‘, and the boom in his employers‘ fortunes that this creates.

Adshead provides a devastating critique of drugs companies and police brutality. She also confronts sexism (in the form of the rabid womaniser Elmo) head on, which is refreshing in an age where we‘re told strip clubs are fine as long as they‘re ’postmodern and ironic‘.

But the play poses far more fundamental questions about our times than these. ’In this millennium, will we choose to be animals or angels?‘ asks Adshead. Pongo‘s anger-management drug will turn him into an angel. But with everything that has happened to him, does he not have a right to be angry? Is stuffing him with chemicals not treating him like an animal? And what about the peace protesters who, it turns out, the drug will be used on once it has been tested - why should they be pacified?

The demonstrators get angrier, and their protests more generalised - now against the drugs trials and Elmo‘s sexism as well as the war. As Pongo‘s side effects become worse, Adshead hints at an optimistic answer to her question. The angelic, withdrawn Pongo still shows brief flashes of animal anger, and human humour. The animal-like protesters float towards the care home, approaching the final climax like angels. Humanity has an option beyond barbarism, and beyond pacifism in the face of barbarism. Maybe the protesters can defeat the drug company.

As Elmo joins the protesters, he is able to shed his sexist attitudes. This partially excuses something which, I felt, was one of the play‘s weaker features: up until the end, the protesters were all women, and referred to as such. Meanwhile, we are asked to see the cruel, careerist doctor as ’man-like‘, and the only time we are asked to sympathise with her is when her baby - her motherhood - is involved. As a man who protested against the war in Iraq, I felt a little alienated by this rather crude - and, more to the point, unnecessary - introduction of patriarchy theory.

Consistent with the aims of the production company, Red Room, Animal is a stunning piece of political theatre. The writing manages to be surreal but still highly relevant, funny yet poignant, both raw with anger and angelically considered. The acting is brilliant, and the production - like any vivid dream should - leaves you not knowing what‘s hit you. Animal is touring the country until mid-November, and I strongly recommend taking this opportunity to see it.