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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Human Animals
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs    May-June 2016

If, like some, you suspect that the world is going to hell and it's largely our fault, then it might be useful to have a snapshot of what one stage along the route is going to look like. 

In Stef |Smith's new play something is awry with nature, at least in one unnamed town. The pigeons are behaving oddly, the foxes are getting bolder, and death is in the air. 

The authorities respond by first culling the suspect birds and beasts and then going for wholesale slaughter, burning away their habitats and then moving to a 'Kill first and ask questions later' policy with all animals. 

Fear that the infection, if that's what it is, may leap to humans has the community cut off, civil liberties suspended and suspect human homes burned down just in case. 

Smith suggests that it is inherent in humanity to wander blindly into a crisis and then to wander blindly into draconian overreaction, even when the cure may turn out worse than the disease. (One senses a buried metaphor for some recent Middle Eastern wars here.) 

Human Animals is hampered by a dramatic structure that keeps almost all of the story offstage, reported or described by a half-dozen characters a little too schematically chosen for one-of-each diversity. 

One buries her head in the sand, another sees what's going on but just hopes the worst will bypass him. One joins an open rebellion, another joins the oppressive authorities, sure that they're doing the right thing and happy he can make a financial profit in the process. 

While they ignore, support or argue with each other, what is actually going on outside is relegated to bits of passing second-hand reportage. 

Telling a larger story through its reflection in the domestic lives of private individuals has been the backbone of drama since at least Chekhov. 

But for that to work the domestic, localised story has to capture our emotional involvement and hold our attention, with the larger ramifications enriching add-ons. 

Smith's characters and their relationships are never much more than their archetypical and symbolic functions, and there are only occasional moments when we are invited to care about them as people. 

And neither director Hamish Pirie nor a hard-working cast led by Stella Gonet and Ian Gelder can do much to flesh them out and make them real. 

Human Animals may lead you to think about ecology, politics or the human capacity for screwing things up. But it is not likely to make you feel.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Human Animals  - Royal Court Theatre 2016  
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