Zoo, VAULT Festival


by Maxine Smiles

As reporters all over the country zip themselves into their waterproofs to stand in front of wheelie bins that have fallen over in the wake of Storm Jorge, down in the Vaults it’s Hurricane Jonas that is clogging up the airwaves. CNN are filming in the Cherokee Valley Zoo, and have picked the animal handler Bonnie (Lily Bevan) to guide them her day as she prepares the animals for a troubled night.

But she’s staying positive as she bounces around, folding snakes into carriers and shooing the flamingos into the urinals. She has holo stickers stuck to the back of her clipboard, and the scrunchie in her hair matches her bright yellow wellies. She’s not the type to let the small matter of a hurricane wipe a smile off her face.

Over in Britain, Carol (Lorna Beckett) is also rocking a statement accessory: a bat-winged headband, as she tells a school about the North Yorkshire Bat Group (not to be confused with the South Yorkshire Bat Group, who are all levels of useless). I can’t help but think that someone rather brave once told her the bat wings would make her more approachable for kids. I’m not sure it’s working.

Carol’s love of bats is unblemished by sentimentality. She lists their good points with all the emotion of someone explaining why they chose their new phone. “Fast. Clean. They’re good for the environment.”

It’s hard to believe two such different people could be friends. But after a clipped conversation about the difference between shepherd and cottage pie in an anteater conference canteen line, that’s what they’ve become. Rather good ones, too. Despite their differences in disposition, their love of animals and their disapproval of the obnoxiously arrogant male otter expert created a bond so strong Carol might even be willing to add a bum-bag (sorry, I mean ‘fanny pack’) to her sartorial repertoire.

Even when separated by an ocean, their thoughts are with one another. And when the hurricane hits, it’s Carol’s steeliness that keeps Bonnie going. Lights flickering, the hurricane rages around us. The thundering heartbeat of the trains storming over our heads only adds to Mike Winship’s sound and Tom Clutterbuck’s lighting designs, while the curved brick walls make you feel like you’ve been stowed away alongside Bonnie’s charges. The setting almost seems a touch too perfect when Bonnie finds a lady with blue hair sitting in the front row to act the role of peacock.

While the plot lines are in danger of drifting off along with the cages at a few points, Bevan’s storytelling in Zoo has the type of tear-tinged joy to it that squeezes the heart and makes you feel that perhaps humans aren’t completely terrible, even though we all know that animals are way better.

(I should note, on the performance I went to, the cast was joined by BSL Interpreter, a rare but welcome addition to a fringe production.)

Zoo runs through 1 March.

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