NOTE: The following review dates from November 2005 and this production's premiere at London's Bush Theatre. For current cast and tour venue information, see performance listings.
On paper, Amelia Bullmore’s first stage play might sound like a standard domestic drama. But Bullmore’s astute observation and incredibly sharp wit, along with a driven production and strong performances set this play in a league of its own.
In it we meet two couples, one married with children and responsibilities, the other - as described by the male in the couple - “a three-year-long one-night stand”. Both relationships have their flaws as none of the parties involved are entirely honest, but it’s when Phil and Lorna come to visit Jane and Kev and their two young daughters that secrets begin to be revealed.
The first act flies by in a haze of hilarious (yet refreshingly substantial) banter, all the time Bullmore drawing us into the lives of the characters so that we become fixated by their unfolding histories and relationships. The second half involves multiple confrontations which manage to verge on the epic yet remain convincing within Paul Wills' naturalistic kitchen. This is all arresting enough but then Bullmore shifts the piece up a gear in the final part of the play, bringing all the characters hurtling to earth and forcing them to re-evaluate their priorities.
As I said, the performances are strong. Niamh Cusack as frustrated mother Jane reveals flashes of her former independence as she struggles with her difficult girls. Daniel Ryan is touching as her rather bewildered husband Kev, on whom the reality of married life seems to have slowly dawned. Mark Bonnar is charismatic as Phil, the man who’s managed to avoid commitment (whether through his own choice or not), and Nancy Carroll does well to infuse his narcissistic bitchy girlfriend Lorna with a charming quality - we like her in spite of ourselves.
Director Anna Mackmin’s scenes are tight and urgent, making the piece thoroughly compelling and watchable. My only reservation is the device of adults playing the children - which is a little distracting - but, once set up, it becomes tolerable, if not totally unnoticeable, in a play that is so naturalistic.
We're all animals, Bullmore argues, the mammals of the title, and we have natural urges that need to be fulfilled. But this is no condemnation. Not all of those urges are dangerous – some may be sexual and/or destructive, but others, more vital ones, are parental and protective. The play also serves as a reminder for those of us who don’t have little mammals of our own that drama does go on in-between the laundry, nit combs and school runs.
- Hannah Kennedy