Reviewed – 11th February 2019
“written with tender intelligence and a pinch of knowing wit”
The Soho Theatre is renowned for championing new writing, offering platforms to the brightest new playwrights this country has to offer. Soft Animals, the debut play by Holly Robinson, is a solid example of this. A pacy examination of ethics, exploring unorthodox friendships amidst an age of blame and hate.
Sarah (Ellie Piercy) is scrubbing graffitied obscenities off her front door. Frankie (Bianca Stephens) is struggling to do the most basic of daily tasks. Since the tragic accident that brought these two women together, the last thing either expected would be to find comfort and solace from each other’s company. Battling through the mountain of hate mail and social media death threats, it is their shared need to self-destruct in order to deal with their pain, which strangely offers them a chance to save one another.
Holly Robinson certainly does a creditable job on her first play. Soft Animals is written with tender intelligence and a pinch of knowing wit. You can tell she delights in drip feeding the audience the integral bits of information, gradually forming the bigger picture of what the accident entailed. The suspense that ensues makes for compelling viewing.
The odd bits of commentary on racial inequality and stereotyping, as well as the acknowledgment of still recognisable class structures, adds relevancy, even if at times it feels like it’s executed heavy handedly. The small yet priceless comedic observations on 21st-century life help to bring lighter moments to what otherwise would be an awful amount of troubling darkness.
The two actors nimbly dance around the shifting status of their characters’ relationship as it moves from being like mother and daughter, to patient and carer, to being part romantic, to part dependent.
Performed in the round, in a very intimate space, you can feel the claustrophobic intensity of Sarah and Frankie’s connection. You are very much a part of the action which makes it completely absorbing. The clever design of soft-play like furniture that affix together in building block fashion, is an understated nod to lost childhood which becomes a significant part of the plot (without giving too much away).
We live in a world where online trolling and anger-filled social media posts occurs ferociously. Robinson uses this cultural climate to colour the environment in which her characters have to battle. It places the play completely in our zeitgeist. But what truly stands out is the multi-faceted qualities of female friendships and how intense a female bond can be.
Reviewed by Phoebe Cole
Photography by Helen Maybanks
Soho Theatre until 2nd March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 18th April 2018
“a truly heartwarming love song to female friendship”
Charlotte Merriam’s terrifically turbulent, teeming and joyful writing debut is brought to every shade of life on the Pleasance stage, by an ensemble cast of six that support one another’s skillful uproar. Produced by Siberian Lights & Rachel Kraftman Productions and directed by Jamie Garven, Dames is theatre which makes you want to dance, get drunk, tell your friends you love them and embrace the world outside the toilet, no matter how daunting it can be.
Stepping in and out of character, in a sort of Brechtian performance of femininity, the toilet scenario is also a metaphor for the process of undress which happens in a cubicle, akin to the one which the actors perform on stage, as they expose themselves in order to build relationships with the audience. In principle, this premise works really well, and added a clever comic touch, when Ginny, played by Bianca Stephens with excellent comic timing, talks to the audience as her real self, preparing herself to go in to the toilets in character. The toilets are this ground of rebirth, of blinking drunkenly into the eyes of a strange woman and finding out you could be friends, or that you’re in love. It’s a nice original twist which defies expectations, just as Dames describes itself as a ‘raucous revelation’.
Merriam herself plays the wonderfully dry Erin, whose double act with Bianca is a truly heartwarming love song to female friendship, in all its honestly beautiful ugliness. Arabella Neale’s Kate takes self-awareness to the next level, as she theatrically bemoans being thin and beautiful. On the surface, this is rather inane: but Neale’s portrayal manages to be haughty and highly loveable. She and Olivia Elsden both deliver performances which complexify Dames, as they retain an element of reserve. Melanie Stephens as Cardiff is the last to enter the toilets in a whirlwind of wanking and speaking frankly. Her no-shits-given swagger is the perfect counterpoint to Emily, played endearingly by Ellie Heydon, and Kate, whose waxing lyrical about halloumi and wholefoods is nigh on excessive. But they pull it off, because they’re fun and very watchable.
Joshua Bowles’ live music, often cued by the performers, is the perfect accompaniment to the antics. Reverberating round the echoic playing space, it feels like the club outside the toilets, from which they’ve all come to hide. April Dalton’s design is instantly eye-catching, a mass of streamers, glitter, iridescence and strewn toilet paper, crowned by a golden chair in the middle – the bog. When Erin is sick, she throws up feathers. The design, highlighted by Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lights, brings just the right amount of stylisation and other worldliness to Dames, which keeps the content raw, but still allows the audience to celebrate and enjoy what is being revealed.
Dames is brave, fun and novel. I liked watching it, yes – but there was something about it which also made me want to inhabit it. Structurally, it could have been better conceived, with some of the elements of repetition stripped back. As an experience, though, it was a treat: brimming with energy and sparkling with golden performances.
Reviewed by Eloise Poulton
Photography by Scott Rylander
Pleasance Theatre until 29th April