It’s 2046 and utility is the watchword. In Emma Adams’ dystopian satire, the current rhetoric of strivers and scroungers has snowballed into a society in which each last member is judged on their usefulness. Fit, docile, unquestioning adults are in; the ill, the curious and the elderly are out.
In this nightmare world of bubble-wrapped children and door-to-door euthanasia, lapped by the steadily rising tides of a planet out of control, Adams homes in on three resourceful older women. Tough, forbidding Norma (77 posing as 37), her ageing home help Joy and their drug-stashing neighbour Helen scratch out an existence through a mixture of cheerful blackmail and steely pragmatism, always taking what they can get. That includes Maya, the wide-eyed, over-protected girl who unwittingly disrupts the fragile peace of their lives. Teetering on the brink of adulthood, and with a father responsible for the “clearance” of those judged useless, she’s either the answer to their prayers or the catalyst of their destruction.
As dystopias go, this is an intriguing one. Rather than being precipitated by violent upheaval or nuclear apocalypse, the crisis here is positioned as a brutal extension of austerity logic, going one better than cutting benefits by cutting the people dependent on them. This is a society with no room for the ageing or unproductive, spurring on a chilling Darwinian drive in its citizens. Terminate or be terminated.
Trouble is, it’s too specific and yet not specific enough. Dystopias on stage bring with them a nightmarish burden of exposition, demanding the swift yet subtle illumination of an entire world. There’s a hint of Philip Ridley to Adams’ set-up – think Mercury Fur – but with none of the menace of the withheld. In Ridley’s plays, surreal landscapes shift indistinctly in the background, never fully revealing their logic. Here, however, detail upon detail about this imagined future world is uncovered, but without the accumulating information ever quite forming a consistent fictional universe. There are still dangling loose ends and big, yawning gaps.
The tone, too, fails to cohere. It feels like a Sunday-night sitcom dropped into a Philip Ridley fantasy dropped into a political dystopia, with all the disconnect such a combination implies. Lisa Cagnacci’s production is also something of a hodgepodge, struggling to get a grip on the slippery world that Adams has written. Max Dorey’s suitably time-(and water-)stained design neatly separates inside and outside, but the transitions between these two spaces are invariably clunky, while absolutely nothing is added by Max Pappenheim’s future-meets-videogame soundtrack or by the sparse and superfluous use of video projection. If this is what the future looks like, it’s a mess – though perhaps not in the way Adams intended.
The real problem with Animals, though, is that it’s a play about capitalism that wants to simultaneously be a play about ageing. Trying to do both, it succeeds at neither. Cheering as it is to see such meaty roles being written for older women – something Adams has been rightly vocal about – this intention finds itself tussling with the play’s conceit. We get fascinating glimpses of a society in which relationships have become coolly detached transactions and language is being steadily corporatised, but the sharp edges of this satire are blunted by the largely unchallenged and all too familiar tropes of old age. There’s plenty to be said here – about austerity, about capitalist logic, about the way society sees older women. But in trying to say too much of it, Animals ties its tongue in knots.