Theatre Review: ANIMAL – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Bold, brave and brilliant, ANIMAL is a truly vital piece of theatre, driven by an exceptional cast performance.

4 out of 5 stars

Winner of the Through the Mill prize, and shortlisted for the Papatango Prize, ANIMAL has now come to Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester. Written by John Bradfield and based on the story and ideas of Josh Hepple, the story follows 25-year-old David, who has cerebral palsy, as he signs up to a dating app in the hope that he can find a man (or several) to take care of him in a way that his care attendant cannot – to get him off.

Christopher John-Slater (The Dumping Ground) gives an exceptional performance as David, bringing a quick wit and clever sarcasm that makes the character instantly likeable, but also a depth and intensity to the more emotional scenes. His performance is bold, unapologetic, and faultless, and perfectly portrays the way in which David’s quest quickly begins to take over his life and the impact that this has. John-Slater doesn’t hold back and allows us to see David in all of his complexity as well as his more empathetic moments.

This is also a credit to the writing of Bradfield and Hepple that David is allowed to be complex rather than being the purely sympathetic character that people with disabilities so often are in the media. David is a much more rounded person who makes mistakes, hurts others, and has to make up for it. He is allowed to be a real person with wants, desires, and regrets. And this is part of what makes ANIMAL so important, is that it realises something that we as a society so often forget – that disabled people are complex human beings, and they are sexual ones.

However, it’s not just David that is allowed to be complex, but the other characters as well, which is a testament to the depth of the writing. For whilst the characters are certainly likeable, they too have their flaws. Rather than giving David the perfect, self-aware, supportive friends that could not do enough for him, instead, his friends constantly stumble into stereotyping him and saying things that they shouldn’t simply because they don’t know any better, and they’ve never had to think about things the way that David does. It sends an extremely powerful message that even the best people in David’s life are still influenced by the way that we think about disabled people as a society.

That David’s friends are also fully realised characters is a testament to the cast that plays them. Amy Loughton gives an outstanding performance as David’s flatmate Jill, with her scenes with John-Slater standing out amongst some of the strongest and most emotionally raw scenes in the piece. She brings a heart to Jill that makes her so much more than David’s flatmate. Similarly, Joshua Liburd as Liam, one of David’s hook-ups that sticks around a little longer than expected, has fantastic chemistry with John-Slater and brings a tenderness and warmth to his role that makes his character stand out amongst the rest.

The rest of the cast are allowed to take this one step further as they play around with multi-roles and do so expertly. Harry Singh plays Mani, David’s flamboyant friend that spins in and out of his life like a colourful tornado of fun, but he also plays Michael, Jill’s laid-back, hipster boyfriend. The two characters could not be more different, yet Singh plays them both so skilfully that you forget almost instantly that they are being played by the same person, for they could not feel more separate.

Whilst the characters are extremely well-written, and the writing is quick and clever, it does feel at times as though some issues raised are not fully played out or dealt with. The most evident example is that following a scene of graphic sexual assault, there is no sense of how this significant trauma impacts the character beyond the immediate aftermath. It is not even referenced afterwards. The way in which the impact of this seems to drop off so suddenly without even a reference or indication of its significance feels disappointing, considering how open the piece is to have all sorts of uncomfortable conversations around sex.

However, what remains is that ANIMAL is bold, brave, and brilliant – not just for its unique portrayal of David as a fully-rounded person but for the conversations that it has about sex. Whether that’s about who has it and who with; preferences and stereotypes; dangers and vulnerabilities; and what all of that looks like for someone with a disability. Paired with Gregor Donnelly’s innovative set design and Matt Powell’s colourful and exciting video design, ANIMAL is a truly vital piece of theatre that everyone should see.

ANIMAL runs at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, until 2 April 2023