I tried to approach the viewing of First Love is the Revolution with no preconceptions. I expected nothing and everything, and was ready to be hit with whatever nonsense and brilliance the Soho Theatre main stage had to offer.
Even still, I was knocked sideways. This play by Rita Kalnejais follows the story of two star-crossed lovers forbidden from being with each other because of their warring families, surrounded by brutal murder and prejudice. But the emotional rawness of this Romeo and Juliet tale, coupled with the darkness of a depressed mother and murdered father between them, is framed with ridiculous comedy and joyful absurdity. The catalyst for this combination is the very thing that took me aback: this is no simple boy-meets-girl story, it is boy-meets-fox, complete with hunting, romping, and banter with other animals.
In this respect, it is the movement direction that deserves significant praise, and the performances therein. Aline David’s work successfully puts paws on foxes, a slink in a cat, and a doddering peck in the chickens. Hayley Carmichael’s performance as the caring, over-protective mother fox is particularly moving, embodying the wise hungry eyes that counter the innocent, bright ones of her cubs. Likewise, Emily Burnett as Rdeča is a delight to watch, and her relationship with Basti, intelligently played by James Tarpey, is directed beautifully and with delicacy by Steve Marmion.
The play itself is well paced, neatly structured and has just the right amount of bonkers to carry forward a poignant message: the revolution will begin when love between humans and foxes is accepted. It will begin when the barriers between species, race, nationality and gender are broken. This is something we can recognise and sympathise with, and the comedy in the play allows this to be a celebration. The only concern one might have is with the casting of this production: is it potentially problematic to cast the black girl as the fox, the white boy as the human? The female as the animal? The black boy as the dog?
Perhaps the casting is this way to make that exact controversial point, and make it crystal clear for the audience. Perhaps it was the clearest way of appealing to historical preconceptions and thwarting them. The ending, in which the revolution begins with the murder of their parents, may well be designed to mark the murder of a poisonous, stereotypical approach to casting. But are we still not ready for a production that marks a revolution beyond that point?
Either way, the production is a lot of fun, and the energy that oozes from its youthful, urban bounce is infectious. There are possibilities and alternative meanings within its layers and subtext that are rich and provocative: is it real? Is it actually all happening inside Basti’s head as a response to the trauma of his mentally unstable mother and philandering father? Are they all in fact human, and this is simply how Basti views the world?
It is a unique play that has a lot to offer, both in thought and entertainment. A laudable contribution to the Soho Theatre’s Love Against The Odds season.