The Animal Kingdom at Hampstead Theatre
In the Hampstead Theatre’s underbelly, a war is taking place. On a stage marked by iron bars that make out a house covered in foliage, a family sit in a group therapy session. Zoology student Sam (Ragevan Vasan) is in a rehabilitation centre after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. His therapist, Daniel (Paul Keating), has pulled Sam’s divorced parents and floundering sister into the same room, and across six sessions, Ruby Thomas’s play The Animal Kingdom will break down each of the five characters’ perspectives and assumptions about each other.
This structure gives a neat, deconstructed spin on the family play. Daniel takes on a meta-role of the audience, poking and prodding the family through revealing monologues. Director Lucy Morrison avoids the potential for static chatter by having the cast swap seats periodically, while often a scene will be interrupted by the halogen lights above the stage flickering to show a few beats skipping.
While the entire cast is very strong (Ashna Rebheru’s neglected sister monologue is a highlight, while Martina Laird captures the henpecking mother trope well), the food chain of this animal kingdom leads to Sam. A queer, nerdy, self-proclaimed outsider, his past is full of fascinating stories. He describes cutting himself in excruciating depth, saying: “Sometimes there’s no match for the mind except the body,” which Vasan’s performance accentuates through repetitive neck movements and twitchy caricature. Playing crazy is no mean feat, and the actor gives Sam a commanding agency. The play unquestionably hits its stride around the middle section, a three-hander as Sam and Daniel try to break down the almost-silent father, Tim (Jonathan McGuinness).
There’s a steady satire of bourgeois foibles that would be familiar to viewers of the HBO miniseries The White Lotus. Thomas’s script has the cast mouthing off about woke culture, gendered language and class shame. Their inability to connect is marked by an oppositional understanding of language. How are hippos supposed to communicate with birds, after all? The Animal Kingdom valiantly fights against the limits of its concept and is never anything less than engaging.
Animal Kingdom is at Hampstead Theatre from 21st February until 26th March 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.