Snow White and Rose Red, Battersea Arts Centre

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Battersea Arts Centre’s family Christmas show for people aged 5 and up is far from the Disney version of Snow White. The children’s show by RashDash, creators of naked, feminist, Edinburgh hit Two Man Show, is also far from conventional kids’ theatre. Combining their woman-led, political ethos with the use of live music, the company reclaims femininity and appropriates the traditionally patriarchal adventure of fairytales in this spirited show for all ages.

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Goats, Royal Court

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

You have goat to be kidding me: the Royal Court’s latest experiment is a tonally-confused take on the Syrian conflict, fake news, and livestock management.

The bleating heart of Liwaa Yazji’s narrative is fascinating. For every son martyred in the ongoing war, local government will provide their grieving family with a goat. Children replaced by milk-laden mammals – it is a compensation scheme of twisted proportions. Local party leader Abu al-Tayyib goes as far as to declare ‘Our vision is for every house in the nation to have its own goat.’

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Killology, Royal Court

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I have a fairly robust constitution and am not particularly squeamish, but Gary Owen’s latest had me trying not to be sick on Meg Vaughan’s bag on my right, or the empty seats to my left and in front of me. They were empty because some people walked out in the first half, and others didn’t return after the interval. That’s not to say Killology isn’t brilliant – it absolutely is. But the brutal story about fractured father/son relationships, toxic masculinity and revenge is bloody hard to watch.

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Tank, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Like their debut production The Beanfield, Breach Theatre’s second show Tank recreates a contentious historical event in a distinctive meta-theatrical mashup up forms and styles. In the 1960s, Dr John Lilley built a Caribbean villa to research cetacean communication with NASA money. Margaret Howe, a young woman with no qualifications who quite liked dolphins, decided she wanted to work there and, impressed by her observational skills, Lilley gave her a job. Their research soon became tarnished with Lilley’s experimentation with LSD and incidents that occured when Howe’s lived in isolation with one of the young male dolphins, Peter.

Breach trawled through hours of recordings documenting their experiments to form the base structure of the verbatim Tank, fleshed out with live sound effects, dance and narration. The production is multi-layered; on one level it’s a fascinating recreation of these experiments and on another, it’s a searing critique of American imperialism over not just other people, but other species that they deem inferior.

Two of the cast of four play Margaret and Peter. Speaking through microphones that distort Peter’s voice into dolphin sounds, there’s a scientific distance between them, and a condescending approach from Margaret. “Speak English, Peter. English,” she says, like a mother to a petulant child only willing to answer in noises, or a condescending local to a tourist. An idea dawns on her that living full time with Peter over a number of weeks in specially adapted rooms would create a fully immersive environment in which the dolphin is sure to make progress.

The weeks in isolation take a toll on them both. Margaret starts to show signs of psychological distress, and the adolescent Peter, normally around two female dolphins, becomes increasingly aggressive. This takes effects their lessons, so Margaret makes a decision that will later be leaked to the press – she manually stimulates Peter to relieve his sexual urges.

She wanks a dolphin.

Breach handle the topic without perverting it as the media did, instead they focus on her scientific thought progression and the fear that his aggression causes. Her focus is always on Peter and his welfare; there is nothing sexual in her actions whatsoever. The overall effect is glossed over in favour of emphasising darker themes – animal welfare, English language dominance and America’s need to rule literally everything in the Cold War era. The other two performers take on narrative and supporting roles, adding depth, context and debate.

The end is a fitting conclusion albeit somewhat of an anti-climax, but the show’s sentiment lingers. This is a more sophisticated piece from Breach, less shouty but with greater impact. The thoughtful, progressive piece more firmly cements their reputation as exciting, young theatre makers.

Tank ran through 20th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Human Animals, Royal Court

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I adore animals, certainly more than I like humans, and I think I missed my calling to be a zookeeper or conservationist. I can’t bear any depiction of animals being harmed on stage or film; even mentions of animal abuse is hugely upsetting. So, I found Stef Smith’s Human Animals a pretty horrible ordeal. Smith’s frantic, apocalyptic story captures society’s instinctive, “Must. Destroy. Everything.” response to the natural world threatening contemporary human sovereignty. As the government wreaks havoc on the natural world in the name of security, half a dozen civilians have a range of reactions to the animal population’s invasion of their homes. This visceral, destabilising drama blasts the audience with 75 minutes of shocking, reactive action as the infection spreads across species, but with the fast pace and constant suspense, it’s difficult to relate to any of the characters. Canny design avoids much mess and graphic depictions of the described carnage, but the narrated horror is all too easy enough to imagine from most modern nations, and his highly disturbing on several levels.

Lisa (Lisa McGrills) and Jamie (Ashley Zhangazha) are a young couple supposedly very much in love, though lacking chemistry. Lisa doesn’t like animals much, so isn’t fazed when the government starts killing off the wild ones who are trying to invade people’s homes. She’s had enough of birds smashing into her windows and either dying or injuring themselves. Jamie can’t handle the ruthless killing; his collapse is well written and convincingly performed. Lisa’s boss Si (Sargon Yelda) is one of “them”, a vile, slimy little man profiting from the disaster. Young activist Alex (Natalie Dew) has just returned from travelling abroad, but mum Nancy (Stella Gonet) still tries to treat her as a child. There’s a lot of gorgeous intimacy and tension between them, often diffused by their genial family friend John (Ian Gelder), who clashes with Si regularly in the local boozer. Otherwise, there is little contact between these conflicting personalities, but the reactions from each character to the growing destruction are heartfelt and saddening.

Smith’s best writing is her conflict scenes between the characters. The rest certainly isn’t bad at all, but the storyline requires either depicting the violent extermination of animals or copious narration. Her choice is understandable and, though well incorporated into natural dialogue, there’s a lot of describing. The design team (Camilla Clarke, Lizzie Powell and Mark Melville) work with director Hamish Pirie to break up the text effectively, with sound, lighting, projection and jets of paint constantly interrupting and surprising/startling the audience. Being constantly kept on edge for over an hour is exhausting, with the story causing additional trauma. As horrible as it is, the whole effect is intricately constructed and totes a powerful message.

Also of note is the set design. The cast and audience are inside a zoo-style animal enclosure, disempowering the characters and trivialising their problems because the outside world is dominant and ever watching. Though the set does not literally indicate the characters’ world and gives no hints of the government-ordered extermination and arson that they describe, its tranquillity is calmly sinister.

The production elements and dialogue are excellent, through the relentlessness of Human Animals can alienate – but that’s the point. It’s terrible, clever commentary on contemporary environmentalism, fear of social disorder and individuals’ reactions to what is effectively a civil war and its strong effect will be long remembered by this animal lover.

Human Animals runs through 18 June.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.