David is a horny, gay, 25 year old looking for love or lust as most horny, gay, 25 year olds do. He also uses a wheelchair as he has severe Cerebral Palsy. He cannot eat, drink or shower by himself without the help of assistants and friends. His condition prevents him being able to satisfy himself sexually and so Animal begins with David on the phone to the helpline complaining about how his recent purchase of a gadget, The Auto Suck, isn’t working. Immediately writer Jon Bradfield establishes the play with mischievous humour alongside the day-to-day practicalities of living that David faces.
Encouraged to try an online dating app with the tactless reassurance that “guys will go for anything”, David launches himself into the world of Grindr. The hookup app’s ableism is immediately established when one of his first online connections – an escort – tells David that someone like him “will always have to pay for sex”. Undeterred, his sexual foray soon bears fruit. Following encounters with a 50 year-old photographer who happens to be married and a 48 year old who wants him to “be good for Daddy”, he meets Liam for what he declares is the best sex he ever had. On the surface, Liam is physically beautiful but with a typical barrage of questions from David’s sharp mind, we discover that he has his own mental health challenges, including body dysmorphia.
David’s experiences on Grindr are packed with relatable, laugh-out-loud humour as well as the brutal reality of ghostings and negativity. While Animal never intends to be agitprop or a polemic, it is certainly eye-opening in depicting the push and pull of David’s needs to live a fulfilled sexual life and the practicalities that his condition demands. In a striking line, he says “I have cerebral palsy but society hasn’t adapted to it”.
In the play’s most striking and emotive sequence, David has finally arranged to go out of his flat with Liam on a daytrip to Brighton. He arrives early at Victoria station and he begins texting Liam. Only once he is on the train, does the text conversation reveal that Liam has only just woken up and didn’t realise it was confirmed. Before David can manoeuvre his wheel chair off the train, the doors close and the train begins to speed off. While the play refuses to draw David as a victim, this sequence with David stuck on the train texting Liam and Derek for help does expose his vulnerability. “I’m a fucking prisoner” he texts in fear and frustration. Coming amidst the bonhomie and humour of the play, it’s a horrible, upsetting sequence.
And it gets to the core question of the play: how can someone have a spontaneous, authentic sex life while requiring round the clock assistance and support? When angrily quizzed in the aftermath of the train incident why he didn’t text Liam ahead of time, his crushing reply is he didn’t want to give him the excuse to cancel.
David’s struggle for autonomy in his life is reflected honestly. His drive is admirable but he can be manipulative and even cruel. Christopher John–Slater‘s portrayal is truthful and nuanced. It’s always a worry when characters are explicitly referred to as being funny in a script, but fortunately John-Slater has great comic timing to land David’s caustic humour. Animal needs for us to see all aspects of David. good and bad, joyous and frustrated and John-Slater is the perfect leading man for the role.
Jill, his live-in care assistant, played with great warmth and wit by Amy Loughton, demonstrates the difficulty of establishing the boundaries between friendship and caring assistance. Living in David’s flat and helping him do everything, it is easy to see how such a role can erode his decision-making in favour of her wanting to do what she believes is best for him. When there is a dramatic challenge to their relationship in the second half, both Loughton and John-Slater play the emotional fallout for all its worth.
Matt Ayleigh imbues Derek, David’s other assistant, with immediate likeability. A struggling actor who supplements his income by supporting David’s living needs, he offers a certain dopiness to his self-involvement. While genuinely concerned for David’s welfare, his grating “Hey Buddy” towards his boss is obliviously patronising. No spoilers, but the contrast between Derek and Nuno, the other character he plays, demonstrates what a powerful range Ayleigh has as a performer.
Similarly Harry Singh, always a captivating performer, gives two contrasting characters. David’s friend, Mani, is flamboyant and gay with a capital G, swishing in and out of rooms as if on their own personal supermodel runway – but still manages to convince us of the character’s depth and understanding underneath the ostentation. By contrast, Jill’s bisexual boyfriend Michael is sweet, unassuming but rather naïve.
William Oxborrow shows tremendous versatility playing a variety of David’s hook-ups before rather movingly taking on the role of David’s well-meaning Dad. Joshua Liburd completes the impressive cast as Liam. Given that the character is on his own voyage of self discovery and has an issue with emotional intimacy, Liburd does well breadcrumbing his performance, giving the audience glimpses of his internal life.
Animal came into existence when Guardian journalist and LGBTQI+ activist, Josh Hepple, who also has cerebral palsy, approached Jon Bradfield with ideas and the subject matter to write this play. While the drama puts someone with cerebral palsy as the central character, this is the story of the heart as much as it is of the body. The main characters are rounded, with their own sets of strengths, foibles and flaws – which makes the ideas and questions that the writer poses so vivid.
Frustratingly the way Animal is staged at Park Theatre is problematic. The thrust stage mostly faces the largest bank of seating who will enjoy the production as intended. Unfortunately the two side banks of seats have not been considered properly in this tour. For an extended period in the second half – a scene set in the garden – you sit with a view of the actors badly obscured by the glare of the side lighting shining directly into your eyes. In the same scene, because of the shallowness of the thrust stage, four of the actors are side-by-side in a line as if they are waiting for a bus. The side view makes Matt Powell‘s imaginative video projections harder to see. While none of these would be an issue at the tour’s previous venues of Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester or Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol, it absolutely is something that needs to be addressed here.
Those particular qualms aside, there is no doubting that Animal is another must-see drama in a year rich with stunning new writing. A terrific script that pivots effortless between light and dark, a flawless cast, led by an unforgettable lead performance by Christopher John-Slater, all act as a timely reminder of the power of theatre to tell stories that should be told.
A vibrant story of the heart as well as the body – ★★★★★