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Issue 1797 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

A Jittery drama that is often too close for comfort!

Life and death are complicated experiences. They both release a detritus of emotions that affect and shape not just the individual but everything around them.

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in Issue 1797


Animal Kingdom

★ ★ ★ ★
Hampstead Theatre
Until. March 26th 2022
From £5

Life and death are complicated experiences. They both release a detritus of emotions that affect and shape not just the individual but everything around them. Directed by Lucy Morrison and written by Ruby Thomas, Animal Kingdom offers a careful and delicate exploration family — after the suicide attempt of a university student Sam (played by a jittery yet engaging Ragevan Vasan) and the shaping of his dysfunctional childhood are teased in six therapy sessions. 


Sam, a queer zoology graduate, has a stereotypicallydysfunctional family history! A cheating father, parents who divorced in his teens, and a half-sister from his father’s affair that Sam struggles to associate with. But, more importantly, a family that is–at the same time–both there for him, and not. Together with his therapist Daniel (played by a calm and measured Paul Keating) and the rest of the familial cast: the play delves deep into each of their relationships with Sam.


For the most part, the family depict stereotypical charactersthat can be found in any tale of family and mental health —the cold, distant, infidelious father Tim (Jonathan McGuinness); the suffocating mother Rita (Marina Laird) who refuses to listen to her children; and a sibling (a wonderfully peppy Ashna Rabheru) who is caught up in the turmoil, forced to act beyond their age. Not unsurprisingly the play is tame on paper, what makes it stand out is the sharp honesty in the dialogues: taking the narrative into heavier places that feelunnervingly real.


The minimal set design in Hampstead Theatre’s 'Downstairs’ stage deserves major credit for allowing the script and the actors to shine. Featuring only a small room with five chairs, an imaginary two-way mirror, and a single wall for Sam tovent his frustrations on from time to time — the play makes best of the small and cramped spaces to provide an enhanced level of intimacy to the narrative and to the audience.


We are there next to Sam, when he pummels the singular wall after his mother refuses to listen to him; we are a fly-on-the-wall as his sister owns up to being a teenager — finally ventingher pent-up frustrations. In all these instances, we are uncomfortably close… the voices bounce off us before they hit the actors and, in that sense, they make us an equal part of this family. 


The entire cast provide memorable performances, but Ragevan Vasan as Sam stands out with his wonderful and sensitive portrayal of someone coming to terms with the consequences of his actions, on himself and those around him. He is jittery throughout the play (whether it is during his monologues or when he is daydreaming about birds…) constantly on edge like a drug addict, but with a touch of empathy and depth in his eyes, that makes us feel sorry for him rather than judgemental. Laird as Rita is annoyingly accurate in painting her picture of someone who has too much to say and too little patience to listen.


It is telling that Sam’s favourite birds are Swifts — known for two things. They are one of the fastest birds around, fleeting from branch to branch, and also have the weakest legs. Much like them, Sam is unrooted; drifting from person to person for much of his childhood, meandering between a talkative yet inattentive mother, an absent and stoic father, and an adolescent sister and half-sister struggling to find her place in this dysfunctional family.


So, give this play a try. Put yourself in uncomfortably close quarters and experience the trauma that indifference, especially from family members, can labour on a person! Sam will be unsure what he is going to do at the end of the play, but certainly just like other every member of the audience, you will walk away knowing full well the virtues of listening to those around us and a little compassion.

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