Pharmaceutica is a fantastic enterprise. It's a drug company developing TR14, a tablet to suppress rage. It’s being tested on the likes of Pongo an ex-homeless man who’s showing signs of improvement, both his doctor and nurse say so.
But this is an unsettling world where civil unrest is standard and where riots in the very park in which the human testing is being performed have led to the deaths of young children. The statements we hear from Elmo, the young male nurse, testify to this, but is TR14 the wonder drug the physiatrists seem to think? Or are the fierce protests of the masses justified?
Kay Adshead’s play is alienating and disturbing. The world into which we are initiated is compelling and alarmingly close to our own. Animal could, and in a lot of ways feels as if it should, have been written by a man. This is because the only female of the three characters, the doctor heading the investigation, seems emotionally weak, while the other two male characters have very fixed, sexual and verging on misogynistic ideas about women.
The themes within the play itself are interesting: The indignity of illness and the nature of power, doctor versus patient and man over woman - and the question of rape is reintroduced several times. There is also bold and academic symbolism, in brief, the text feels full of potential and yet still like an early draft, poignant in places, flabby in others.
Fiona Bell plays Doctor Lee with Mark Monero as Elmo and Richard Owens as the patient, Pongo. For people who are meant to be full of rage - the irony is that the doctors and nurses are as full of it as the patients - the intensity of the aggression never feels fully motivated.
Bell is weary and earnest as the doctor while Owens’ patient never varies enough in his playing of Pongo to terrorise the way he should. The only performance with potential is Monero’s Elmo the part-time comedian whose dark and poetic comedy is violent and disturbing and forces the audience to recognise something alarming in their own world.
What the piece lacks is a firm hand. The performances aren’t strong enough to lift the writing and vice versa. Red Room’s Lisa Goldman’s direction lacks the force to create the dramatic tension we drastically need in the later scenes, so what we are left with is a frustrating 90 minutes that could have provoked much more than ambivalence.
- Hannah Kennedy (reviewed at Soho Theatre)