The Animal Kingdom at Hampstead Theatre – review

Ruby Thomas’ drama continues its run until 26 March

Ashna Rabheru, Jonathan McGuinness, Ragevan Vasan, Paul Keating and Martina Laird in The Animal Kingdom
Ashna Rabheru, Jonathan McGuinness, Ragevan Vasan, Paul Keating and Martina Laird in The Animal Kingdom
© Robert Day

What happens if you put all the awkwardness, discomfort and pain of family therapy through the sausage grinder of a drawing-room drama? No punning repartee, shady affairs or mysterious characters appearing in the night – just difficult conversations, long pauses and jugs of tap water. The Animal Kingdom, a new work by Channel 4 playwright Ruby Thomas, is at times as uncomfortable as therapy, but eventually just as redemptive.

It's the story of Sam (played with twitching, awkward physicality by Ragevan Vasan) and his recovery after a suicide attempt. It quickly emerges, however, that Sam's family each have their own difficulties: Martina Laird as Sam's mother suffers from depressive ‘duvet days', his father is emotionally starved and his sister inevitably feels swept under the rug.

In this way, Thomas has artfully constructed a play which doesn't run on b-plots, secrets or hidden revelations. There's no inspector needed, just an understanding therapist, Daniel, played by Paul Keating with more warmth than your favourite Blue Peter host. What emerges is what Daniel would describe as ‘the family system', but what feels more like a family organism: the hidden mesh of emotions, agendas and pasts which define each relationship, often unbeknownst to the very members of that system.

Naomi Dawson's simple set design puts this organism in the round, each character facing inwards and rotating around the chairs over six sessions. That means you're out of luck if you happen to be sat behind Laird, who convincingly dominates most scenes with a mother's compulsive verbal diarrhoea: part trying to write the family narrative, part needing to fill any silence.

It soon emerges that one hotseat, upstage, is where characters seem to strike an emotional vein. It's not just easy formalism from director Lucy Morrison, it's a thoughtful trick which focusses both cast and audience attention throughout. It's so simply effective it even makes the dead space between scenes exciting, because it suggests which character's breakthrough is next up to bat.

Some land and some don't. Sam's sister, Sophie, says she felt forgotten; Sam says she was the last person he thought about before attempting suicide. Sam's dad, Tim, wasn't hugged enough as a child; Sam and Tim (after an uncomfortable pause) hug it out. It's the nature of a this sharp, 80-minute production that skipping between revelations like these sometimes feels a bit too easy.

But there are more hits than misses in Thomas' only second ever play. The characters are clearly drawn and recognisable. Lighting and sound from Holly Ellis and Bella Kear, respectively, don't have much to do, but combine deftly with some modest, well-practised movement to convey the passing of time. Necessary heaviness is leavened with unforced laughs: touchstones with the reality of these characters like Laird's motherly exclamation: ‘am I not allowed to speak now?'.

With just a few mistuned lines tweaked and a less clumpy trounce from each revelation to the next, The Animal Kingdom is nearly complete triumph. It's heavy, yes, but funny, humane and very rewarding. Ultimately, what emerges from Thomas' therapeutic drawing-room is an exciting indication of things to come.