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Keepers

by on 17 October 2018

Won’t Someone Think of the Animals?

Keepers

by Ben Clare

Lifelike Theatre at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 19th October

Review by Matthew Grierson

If Kerry is awkwardly natural when she introduces Amy to the zoo, Tom is naturally awkward on meeting his new colleague. Small talk and business-speak combine in Kerry’s opening monologue, which is nicely observed both in terms of Ben Clare’s writing and Ally Staddon’s performance as the upbeat but dim-witted keeper. The scene serves not only as Amy’s orientation but also our own introduction to the dynamic of this three-hander, a new play that looks at first to be a study of the relationship between her (Emma Miles) and Tom (Craig Bates).

Once Kerry has waved a cheery goodbye, Tom and Amy are soon chopping carrots in synch – though as he points out, she needn’t been cutting them into so many pieces because the animals need to do a bit of chewing to improve their teeth. It mayn’t be wise to draw attention to eating so early: at various points in the play, Bates has to munch on fruit or pizza while delivering dialogue, something that doesn’t help his tendency to swallow his words. That said, the occasional lost line at least plays up – or rather, plays down – Tom’s diffidence.

The small talk between the two becomes bigger, with a sometimes stilted rhythm that complements their hesitantly developing chemistry. It is appealingly naturalistic, but runs the risk of contrivance at times. There’s a particular scene that relies repeatedly on the device of one of them not knowing a word and having the other come up with it, and yes, this does suggest two people realising they are similarly minded, but it also draws attention to its staginess. Likewise, while the sound effects of birdsong aren’t themselves intrusive, in those moments that they are audible they remind us that there ought actually to be more animal noise from the hippos, penguins, llamas and tapirs that roam the dialogue.

Keepers Promo

The music cues on the other hand – appropriately enough from the Penguin Cafe – underscore the tender atmosphere of Tom and Amy’s relationship. And with the dialogue both deliberately and accidentally awkward, the cast are also able to make good use of silences, with those when Amy bandages Tom’s cut finger and Tom waits for a tapir focusing, rather than losing, our attention.

Keepers1

Before too long, however, the play puts larger issues at stake. Tom relates an anecdote about a woman visiting the zoo who refused to accept that one of the animals had cancer, and who insisted that it could be treated with alternative therapy. Tom’s frustration at the wilful ignorance of the public in contrast to expert knowledge seems to be taking the play in an interesting direction. As it is juxtaposed with a peppy talk on meerkats, in which Kerry tells us ‘We’re not worried about them in the wild – they’re not endangered’, I sensed we might be being introduced to the idea that the zoo was a microcosm of our planet, and this was reinforced by some nicely comic confusion between Amy and Kerry over whether they are talking about Africa as a continent or an enclosure. In which case, public obliviousness to the zoo animals’ mortality could represent a wider, wilful human blindness to the extinction event we’re now living through, couldn’t it?

I was right about the zoo as an analogy, but I was wrong about its subject. This becomes immediately evident when Kerry tells Amy about a staff vote on whether the zoo should leave the International Zoo Federation. As an incidental gag this is laboured; as a sustained plotline it is still more so, and sees the play’s careful establishment of characters solidify them into argumentative positions instead. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by suggesting what the elephant that is not in the room might be, but Clare’s script has no such reservations. Moreover, he takes a very one-sided view, with the sympathetic Amy and Tom positioned as remainers and the chirpy but superficial Kerry not allowed the ability to mount a convincing counter-argument.

This political agenda co-opts even the play’s better-crafted moments, viz. a pub quiz question on the function of zebra stripes. If camouflage is a discredited theory, why bother disguising the clear political parallels of the piece? Where the dialogue succeeds it does so on the strength of its naturalism, which means Clare would have had licence to let his characters come out and talk about the issues that so clearly concern him. After all, people have been talking plenty about this issue at home, at work and, in all likelihood, at zoos as well over the past couple of years.

Indeed, the exchange when Tom and Amy confront Kerry about leaving the EU – sorry, I mean the IZF – is certainly meant to be as awkward as any of these conversations, but merely confirms the characters in their positions rather than making theatrical use of the tension. With tighter direction, I might even have been convinced that the long silences were meaningful rather than just hesitation over pick-ups. Also awkward are some of the scene changes, as several times the cast are called on to strike a table that is laden with carrots and apples that roll off on to the floor. They’d better watch that … it’ll attract animals.

Keepers Promo 2

Once the political posturing is taken off into the wings with Kerry’s departure, though, we return to the character study with which the play began, and as Amy, Miles delivers a captivating monologue about her time in Botswana. This is a pleasant surprise, because although her reticence about her past has been contrasted with Kerry’s oversharing throughout, that story has been sidelined by the dominance of the leave vs remain plot. Even though the emotional beats of her closing speech are not unpredictable, Miles demands our attention, confirming the status she has built up through the piece as a confident and charismatic lead. Admittedly, her account of a former boyfriend is rather undermined when she then says she could spend all night talking to Tom … The audience is spared his own story, however – awkward as ever, we only get his opening ‘I –’ before the lights go down. The rest, as they say, is silence.

If only the script could have exercised such restraint with politics. As it is, Tom and Amy’s case depends on what a leave vote means for the lives of the animals they manage. But the play can’t ask us to invest in zoological welfare when Clare himself is only using the animals as an analogy for contemporary British politics, because he then fails to practise what he preaches. ‘If only the animals came first,’ indeed.

As a result, Keepers ends up being as earnest as Tom, and doesn’t use its promising setting or set-up to offer new insights into the political situation that is clearly on the writer’s mind.

Matthew Grierson
October 2018

Photography courtesy of Lifelike Theatre

 

From → Drama, Reviews

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