THE ANIMAL KINGDOM Hampstead theatre, NW3

 LEARNING TO LIVE

       Sometimes judging others harshly is a relishable guilty pleasure.  In Ruby Thomas’ wonderful 80-minute sequence of snapshots of  family therapy,  the writer is mischievously aware of this. A dark theme needs light touches, and she  wisely offers us a judgeable comic opening with  the artful performance of Martina Laird as the mother.  Rita is a doula,  airily spiritual and self-involved. Settling into the first session she delivers a treasurable question about the clinic’s water-jug – “Is it tap? I can’t drink tap, it’s a hormone thing”.  She then gushes about how her son is “my most precious thing”  , sharing her own fine capacity for  “feeling things” , and more brilliant than his sister Sofia. Who is sitting right there, glumly silent. That Rita’s  taciturn ex-husband Tim fled a decade ago seems not surprising.  

       Actually, one of the merits of this play is that giving us this brief early moment to roll our eyes at Rita, the writer reassures us that despite the topic – the aftermath of a student suicide attempt – she is not out to harrow us pointlessly.  Nor, indeed, to make the mother a joke:  not long afterwards we learn about her own father’s depressive illness, her own episodes and her terror that genetically  Sam’s self-harm and death wish are her fault. And as the boy tartly informs them all, neither can it be simplistically put down to the divorce. 

         Jonathan McGuinness’ beautifully underplayed Tim is clearly the last man who should have married Rita  ( airheaded emotional incontinents rarely do well alongside self-made venture-capitalists who don’t talk much).   But Tim gets his moment too, in a session without his wife in the room: in a heart-wrenching two-hander with Ragevan Vasan’s Sam the pair confront like old and young stags, until  under the therapist’s careful prompting the older man reveals the postwar-chilly, restrainedly British family background which never taught him to be a warm  Dad.  Wrenched out of him at last is the line “I don’t care what he does or who he is, as long as I don’t have to bury him”.  The lad’s response to an unaccustomed fatherly hug which made some of us cry into our masks was a bracing “Well, that was fucking weird!”.  Whereon we snivelled even more.

         Each family member has their moment, either questioning or drawing out the mystery  of Sam’s desperate discomfort with the human condition. For suicidality always is, to survivors, necessarily a mystery. And   there is electrifying power in the sudden admission of  Ashna Rabheru’s Sofia   “I’m tired of trying to keep you alive” .  Indeed: in these stories we do not often hear the sibling’s accusatory  pain.

        But the beauty of the play is that with or without acquaintance with such darkness almost any family will find fragments of itself in it.  Absurdity, delusion, failures in tact and understanding, wrong words at bad moments,  competition,  expectation, disillusion, and ultimately love. Nor does it promise cosy redemption: Sam is still, as we leave him standing more upright and outward-facing,  the same young man. He still has the mess of life to confront. 

       It’s well-paced (director Lucy Morrison)  with  peaks and valleys of intensity,  its language perfectly pitched, its emotion honest, the five cast flawless.   Yet another in Hampstead-Downstairs’ remarkable spring run of hits.          

 Hampsteadtheatre.com. Extended to 2 April.   

Rating four

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