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Human Animals review at Royal Court, London – ‘thought-provoking’

Lisa McGrillis, Ian Gelder, Natalie Dew, Ashley Zhangazha, Sargon Yelda and Stella Gonet in Humans Animals at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks Lisa McGrillis, Ian Gelder, Natalie Dew, Ashley Zhangazha, Sargon Yelda and Stella Gonet in Humans Animals at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Imagine a city in which nature has run out of control. Birds begin to flock unnaturally, insects multiply all over the place and foxes are colonising the gardens and parks. How does the government react? By exterminating the vermin — and controlling the population through a mixture of propaganda and draconian laws.

Multi-award-winning Scottish playwright Stef Smith grounds this horror-flick fantasy in the everyday life of realistically sketched out characters. While widowed Nancy (Stella Gonet) and her middle-aged neighbour John (Ian Gelder) put up with the new rules and regulations, Nancy’s daughter Alex joins a local direct-action protest. Young couple Jamie and Lisa react differently to the growing national emergency: she works for the authorities while he tries single-handedly to save some animals. The relationships weave together more tightly when Si, Lisa’s boss, meets John in a local pub.

Using an attractive blend of black humour and genuinely disturbing ideas, Smith pictures an ecological catastrophe in which ordinary people are gradually led to condone extraordinary measures. In a way that is vivid and resonant, she points out that habit deadens our critical faculties, and that the authorities use fear to control the population. The imagery of wildlife swarming is clearly relevant to tabloid views on the current migration crisis.

Hamish Pirie’s fast-moving and fluid production fields a battery of effects, with birds crashing into window panes and projections of insect colonies. Despite a lack of depth in some exchanges, there are enjoyable performances not only from Gelder and Gonet, but also from Ashley Zhangazha and Natalie Dew as the conflicted couple Jamie and Lisa.

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Verdict
Short dystopian nightmare about an ecological disaster that is well written, imaginatively staged and thought-provoking
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