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Review | Animal | Hope Mill Theatre | 16/03/2023

Animal is not your usual rom-con sort of affair, being centred not only around a gay man, but a gay man with cerebral palsy. Although written by Jon Bradfield, it came about collaboratively with story originator Josh Hepple. With Hepple having cerebral palsy himself, this allowed Bradfield to confidently write this award-winning piece with authenticity, without any hint of generalisation or stereotyping.

We meet David (Christopher John-Slater), a young gay man with cerebral palsy. Like many his age, he is intensely horny. Perhaps hornier than most, as due to his disability he is unable to pleasure himself. Although getting out and about isn’t straight forward (which is excellently addressed at the end of Act One), he downloads Grindr which mean the men can come to him! We follow him through difficulties with dating, sex, self-care and strained friendships.

Importantly, this show doesn’t shy away from real issues that don’t often get talked about. It starts with a scene where David is on the phone to a call centre operative, who is having difficulty understanding him. Whilst not ignoring David’s frustrations, Bradfield has written this in a way where it sensitively balances it against humour. Unlike the call centre worker, the audience have an opportunity to tune in to his voice. This is a wonderful experience and a lesson in acceptance for the audience. Whilst initially aided by the repetition of information from other characters, as the piece goes on this is not needed for long.

Hepple and Bradfield have been wise to ensure that David is complex and very much real. Ensuring he has flaws and doesn’t always get things right, the audience warm to his sarcastic charm from the get go. We so rarely see disabled people as sexual beings, and to have our protagonist as highly sexual is refreshing, necessary and compelling. Slater plays him to perfection in his honest and eye-opening performance. It was a risk that the audience would sympathise with David in an almost patronising way. Instead we empathise and relate to him on a number of levels, which makes for a much better narrative. Animal also avoids the pitfalls around making it solely about David, and also touches on other peoples issues and insecurities; making it more truly inclusive and representative.

This is a true ensemble piece, with Slater being supported by five other stellar actors to help tell his story, many playing multiple roles believably and with ease. Perhaps most impressive in taking on multiple roles was Harry Singh, who played both best friend Mani and also Michael; two characters which couldn’t be more different. Amy Loughton was a stand out and got some of the biggest laughs of the night as friend and flatmate Jill.

Whilst there are many laugh out loud moments throughout, there are also moments of real grit. This was mostly done well, but it would have been more powerful if difficult to watch scenes involving sexual assault had more of an aftermath and were built upon. Otherwise, the juxtaposition of humour, grit and filth were successful.

Gregor Dannelly’s adaptable set worked flawlessly with Matt Powell’s video design to help tell the story. Perhaps the best use of videos was to bring to life Grindr conversations, which really did bring me back to the days of using dating apps and some of the people who also used them!

Animal is a barrier breaking, provocative exposé on sexual equality. It is truly eye-opening, taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions whilst push you to the edges of your comfort levels. Animal is on at Hope Mill Theatre until 02/04/2023 before moving on to Tobacco Factory Theatre (Bristol) and Park Theatre (London). See below for booking information if you want to find out if David gets a 'happy ending'

Photo Credit: Piers Foley

Note: My ticket was gifted. Irrespective of whether a show is gifted or bought, I always ensure that my reviews are fair and based on my honest opinion alone.


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