Reviews ManchesterNational Published 8 March 2020

Review: Insane Animals at HOME Manchester

28 February - 14 March

No spoilers: James Varney writes an email to HOME and explores the ways in which work is contextualised for audiences.

James Varney
Bourgeois and Maurice in Insane Animals at HOME, Manchester. Set design, Michael Hankin; costume design, Julian Smith; make-up, Andrew Gallimore; lighting design, Sinéad McKenna. Photo: Drew Forsyth.

Bourgeois and Maurice in Insane Animals at HOME, Manchester. Set design, Michael Hankin; costume design, Julian Smith; make-up, Andrew Gallimore; lighting design, Sinéad McKenna. Photo: Drew Forsyth.

FAO: [contact at HOME who I will call Greg]

Dear Greg,

Thanks for your email, and thanks for having me last night. I had a great time.

I appreciate you taking the time to ask reviewers to ‘keep in mind’ the ‘few surprises in the show’ so that we can collectively ‘keep the surprise alive for future audiences who are yet to see the show.’ I feel suddenly conspiratorial when I read this from you, Greg. You have turned me into a keeper of secrets. I sit down to write my review and I’m no longer in a position to ramble on about whatever I like; I’m co-operating in an extension of the show itself.

I agree, by the way. I think if an audience member is going to go into Insane Animals it’d be better in general for them to go in blank. I went in with absolutely no idea what the show was supposed to be. I probably oughtn’t admit to you that I hadn’t read the copy but – Exeunt asked me to review, I said yes and I showed up on the night. The ignorance I had facilitated the show’s plan for throwing curveballs. And the show is pretty much constant curveballs – even as it relies heavily on normal narrative structure; as Bourgeois and Maurice force the plot into the expected high points, low points and finale they manage to constantly surprise, while at the same time referencing a cultural world outside their story. Insane Animals isn’t a self-contained daftness (though it most definitely is a daftness).The trick maybe is that the journey through the show (the plot) is not their characters’, but theirs as narrator/gods of the whole experience.

But then I stand to lose a lot less than a paying audience member by arriving blank. Tickets are up to twenty nine quid for this show. Of course, I can’t pretend anyone is reading my reviews as a kind of consumer guide, but I’m part of a continuum of reviewers. Among my peers are people writing to help audiences decide if a show is worth the price of a ticket. And in those cases, is it enough to be non-specific and talk about the way Insane Animals engages with the act of telling stories, questions the impulses we have as tellers and hearers to find resolution? Bourgeois and Maurice take the Epic of Gilgamesh as their source text as an act of parody; contemporary theatre’s approaches to adaptation are absurd. Why do we lean so heavily on old stories to find meaning? The answer I reckon is that when we adapt source texts we are in fact disarming the audience. Rather than approach them with a story, we ask to negotiate with something they already know, something which is to some degree already a part of them. It’s a trick to more quickly get into an audience’s head. Often, the meaning is ready-prepared, the text is just a vessel. In the same way, Bourgeois and Maurice do not unveil their ‘source’ until they have already decided to save humanity.

Being a critic is always being a kind of double agent, Greg. You have to keep the reader and the theatre onside (not even mentioning editors). One can decide to stop giving you tickets and the other can stop reading any time they like. I think there’s an obvious difference in our positions here – not a conflict really. But an interesting difference in any case. I’m sure you’re a double agent in your own directions – you work in a building.

My job isn’t marketing-focused. Maybe in the time I’ve been writing reviews one or two people have been to see a show because of what I’ve written about it but I think I’m more useful as an archivist work. In the same way Bourgeois and Maurice’s aliens seek to twist and manipulate history, I sit here writing it down. Again, though, our aliens have already decided what they want that history to be. Their relationship to their reluctant human subjects is their show’s relationship to the audience.

At its heart, Insane Animals is a show about the anxiety of making a show that needs to mean something, that needs to make some kind of impact. We can go more meta. Insane Animals is the end product of Bourgeois and Maurice being awarded HOME’s inaugural T1 Commission in 2017. Who might be more anxious than a theatre company awarded a commission to up-scale their work? Or a theatre doing what I think is called ‘taking a risk’ by putting new work on their main stage. We’ve both seen companies less successfully awarded large commissions before, Greg. I’d be bricking it myself. When Bourgeois and Maurice talk about transhumanism, they could as much be singing about being subsumed into a wider funding structure as transposing your consciousness into the internet.

Bourgeois and Maurice want to save the world. But theatre isn’t all-powerful. At the end of Insane Animals, nothing has changed – history is unaltered, really. None of the show is real. At one point, Maurice cries, “You’re doing what we rehearsed. Just like last night.”We’re watching a show. There’s a horrid, metric-pressure hanging over artists who are publicly funded. The work must be worthy and quantifiable. But the change done by proscenium arch theatre is quiet and personal more than anything else. The audience have their own reasons for coming and they haven’t come here to talk about that, they’ve come here to be entertained. I’ve found it easier to avoid talking about ‘surprises’ than I thought. I think the writing of reviews is done through obscuring detail. The real detail is dead. The tremors left in Insane Animals‘s wake are from small moments of change; they come in Queer twists, jokes in the use of set and props, in songs called ‘Gay For You’ and ‘Meat Machine’. They come from surprises.

Bourgeois and Maurice go to lengths to pervert the normal course of a theatrical musical. They take advantage of the live audience in the room with them. They trick them, they lie to them, and at the same time they acknowledge that playing tricks and telling lies is exactly what their audience has come here for. It is necessary for Insane Animals to be a stage musical because they need their audience looking back at them. Lies work best when you can see the whites of their eyes.

I don’t go to the theatre to find out what the plot is, Greg. I go to enjoy the way it’s told. That’s why I re-watch Watership Down most months – I haven’t forgotten what happens. I enjoy the telling. Bourgeois and Maurice tell it well, and they know that we know that they know how a story is supposed to work. It helps to have a frame. If you like, all narratives are framed narratives. I read Wuthering Heights within the context of understanding English and knowing the Kate Bush song. I write an email to you within the context of us each sitting at our desks.

How ‘future’ an audience are we talking, too? You talk about ‘future’ audiences. How long do you think we’ll last? If we go a month ahead the show won’t even be on any more. All the faffing we do to get by will be over something else.

Thank you for taking the time to read this – ran away with it a bit didn’t I.


James Varney
writer & theatremaker


James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Insane Animals at HOME Manchester Show Info

Directed by Phillip McMahon

Written by George Heyworth, Liv Morris

Choreography by Carl Harrison

Cast includes Bourgeois and Maurice, Lockie Chapman, Emer Dineen, Victoria Falconer, Evie Jones, Kayed Mohamed-Mason, Jarrad Payne

Original Music George Heyworth, Liv Morris



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