“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.
“A highly entertaining tale that already feels like classic comedy”
The legendary writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who are behind such TV comedy classics as The Likely Lads, Porridge, and, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, are now trying their hand at the stage. Similar to their biggest hit, The Commitments, Chasing Bono is an Irish play with music looking at the ups and downs of being in a band. Taking inspiration from Neil McCormick’s memoirs, I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, which back in 2011 was turned into the film Killing Bono, Clement and La Frenais manage to keep its heart and hilarity for this new adaption.
McCormick (here played by Niall McNamee) wants to become a musical legend, known by all. So does his good mate Paul (Shane O’Regan). Both decide to start up bands, making these two pals become (friendly) musical rivals. Paul tries poaching Neil’s guitar-playing brother Ivan (Dónal Finn) for his crew, but Neil persuades his younger sibling they’re better off sticking together. The public love a family affair. It doesn’t take long before Paul’s band takes off after changing his name to Bono, and the band’s name to U2, and the rest, you can say, is history. Whilst U2 are playing Wembley Stadium, Neil and Ivan are stuck playing pubs and ‘titty bars’. The McCormick brothers’ musical luck goes from bad to worse as their confidence in reaching stardom begins to wane.
Clement and La Frenais’ sharp, witty, dialogue is the driving force to the production. Some of their one-liners are pure comedy gold, erupting laughter from the audience on numerous occasions. You can tell you’re in the safe hands of comedy writing pros. It feels clean and polished, but sometimes too much so. There is a sense of lacking a final ingredient, possibly in the plot line, which is stopping this from being a brilliant production. What that special little extra is, I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The realistic country cottage kitchen set plays multiple different locations throughout the story, without ever really changing. The highlight is the high-level wooden beams of the cottage giving way to present the recording studio/radio booth/record company office that looms above the stage and audience with ominous arrogance.
The music that’s incorporated into Chasing Bono, performed by McNamee and Finn both on guitar and vocals, are the original compositions by the real McCormick brothers from their various bands such as Yeah!Yeah! and Shook Up! The songs are all fairly mediocre. It’s understandable why they never quite made it in the music biz. Regardless of song quality, the actors do give credible renditions of them.
McNamee embodies both fearlessness and fragility as the protagonist Neil, with the story moving back and forth from the past to present. Denis Conway and Ciarán Dowd as notorious Dublin gangster Danny Machin and his henchman Plugger are quite the Laurel and Hardy double act. O’Regan’s uncanny resemblance to Bono is a sight to see. The small amount of singing that he does proves vocally he isn’t a complete mimic, but this doesn’t detract from his excellent portrayal.
A highly entertaining tale that already feels like classic comedy – nothing ground-breaking, you know what you’re getting, but by God is it enjoyable.