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Bush Theatre, London

Hannah Knowles
posted 15 April 2005

Mammals by Amelia Bullmore is the latest offering from one of Britain's most successful launchpads for new writers, the Bush Theatre. The play depicts a marriage in crisis following husband Kev's revelation to his wife Jane that he is in love with someone else. The arrival of Kev's best friend Phil with his whirlwind of a girlfriend triggers a series of confessions which threatens to upturn all of their lives. Kev and Jane's increasingly desperate attempts to discuss their problems whilst hiding them from their two daughters makes for an insightful and often painfully amusing drama.

In defence of his desire to have an affair Kev asserts, 'We're just mammals at the mercy of urges'. True though this may be, his best friend Phil counters, the 'human type mammal' has 'a conscious brain that hopefully can have a meaningful flow of dialogue with the heart'. Herein lies the tension at the heart of Amelia Bullmore's startlingly sophisticated debut play - Man as animal with basic instincts in conflict with Man as civilized being capable of rational thought. It certainly seems as though the former is dominating in Kev and Jane's household, where the floor is barely visible for clutter, fraught wife and mother of two Jane physically lashes out at her children, while her husband abandons reasonable behaviour as he obsessively phones the object of his passion every few minutes.

Not that rational thought when it is in evidence helps matter. Although Phil describes consciousness as a 'perk' of being human, it also causes a considerable amount of pain, misery and confusion, and often instead of enabling a dialogue between brain and heart, allows humans to create barriers between the two, especially through our use of language. This is particularly true when it comes to the use of the word 'love'. Whilst Jane and Kev believe themselves to have been happy and in love for the best part of their 12-year marriage, Lorna - Phil's bracingly abrupt and wild girlfriend - dismisses this love as a 'con', stating that 'real' love is experienced only by a select few, naturally including herself. Have Kev and Jane merely been 'rubbing along', pretending to themselves that they are in love because it's comfortable and easy, or is Lorna the one deluding herself that her intoxicating, passionate and selfish love is the real thing, simply because it's what she likes best? Suddenly the human ability to analyse is raising as many problems as thoughtless impulse.

In children the capacity for self-delusion and deception of others isn't so well developed, and throughout the course of the play, the two daughters - Jess and Betty - unwittingly, and often to great comic effect, reveal the truths the adults are too afraid or too self-deceived to confront or comprehend themselves. Betty's repeatedly uttered fear of mortality might as well be the voice of her parents' subconscious, displaying as she does the root cause of their anxieties over their lack of emotional, sexual and mental self-fulfilment. The instinctive speech and behaviour of the children unwittingly expresses the human condition better than the self-analysis of their adult counterparts, because ultimately, no matter how hard we try to define ourselves as humans, explanations will always elude us, since the very duality of being human - creatures of rational logic and irrational impulse - is paradoxical. Director Anna Mackmin deftly manages to evoke the right levels of frustration, humour and sadness that this paradox creates.

The play, however, is titled Mammals, not Humans, and one feature of mammals is that they are warm-blooded. It is this quality - in its metaphorical sense - that this generous production captures best. The uniformly excellent cast produces wonderfully sympathetic performances with flawless comic timing, and gives such a fine example of ensemble work that it would be unfair to single any individual out for separate praise, though each deserves it.

Till 7 May 2005


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