Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 10 September, 2003

At its best, which is much of its 90-minute continuous running time, Animal stands comparison with the finest of those 20th-century plays that use institutions as microcosms of the country as a whole plays like Pinter's The Hothouse and David Storey's Home. In Kay Adshead's three-hander, a female research medic, a male nurse and an elderly human guinea-pig plucked off the street inhabit some kind of psychological-pharmaceutical research centre run by a multinational, but with obvious government complicity. It is situated in the middle of a London park, in a Britain which is in an undefined state of war and dealing brutally with its domestic protesters. The characters stand respectively for the diligent apparatchik, the conscience-pricked fellow-traveller and a compendium of awkward types: as Pongo's drug régime is changed, he may be hyperactive, psychotic, catatonic, blind or inconveniently insightful.

But the grim achievement of Adshead's play is that it is at once an abstract parable and a quite particular polemic, as one might expect of an author whose last stage play The Bogus Woman (2000-1) was a searing indictment of the realities of the asylum system. Little by little, it becomes apparent that what is being researched here is a non-lethal chemical weapon which can psychologically pacify enemy forces, rioters or entire populations as a matter of course. Pre-Prozac tranquillisers used to be referred to as the "chemical cosh"; what is envisioned here is such a cosh raised to a societal level. Lest we delude ourselves that research in this area is a paranoid fantasy, the programme includes a URL-ography of some thirty Web sites on the subject, from organisations including Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Nor are the events onstage set in a dystopian future, but rather at the end of the last century "fifteen minutes ago", as it were.

Director Lisa Goldman allows Fiona Bell, Richard Owens and Mark Monero space in which to find characterisations that are natural and organic whilst still fully serving the play. Goldman's Red Room company, which has produced this presentation at Soho Theatre, once again confirms its reputation for both theatrical and political outspokenness. And, despite a final few minutes which suffer from both being a touch too explicit and from having to recount offstage events to us rather than show them, Adshead makes you want to take to the streets while you still can. <

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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