Holly Robinson’s ‘Soft Animals’ is a very specific type of show – a two-hander exploring an ethical knot, written in elliptical, rapid-fire dialogue, and staged with sparse slickness. It’s what you might call the James Fritz school of playwriting (if you know who James Fritz is). Short, sharp, and slightly shocking.
As an example of the sub-genre, ‘Soft Animals’ is pretty good, particularly considering it’s Robinson’s debut.
The two characters: a wealthy, traumatised white woman (Sarah, recently divorced), and a young black student (Frankie, evidently depressed), who share a friendship/relationship that's unlikely considering what they’ve been through and what they’re going through.
What they’ve been through (slight spoiler alert): the latter discovered the dead body of the former’s young daughter – an accidental death that doesn’t bear imagining.
What they’re going through: Sarah is in denial, determinedly flaunting herself at tourist traps, hoping for some sort of public punishment, and Frankie is too, pinning her overarching depression on Sarah’s trauma.
It’s staged in the round, with Lakesha Arie-Angelo directing fluidly on Anna Reid’s playpen set – a bare square, populated by squishy, colourful shapes and cuddly toys. The two actors – Ellie Piercy, mousy and slightly mischievous, and Bianca Stephens, anxious and authentically Brummie – circle round each other, sometimes like predator and prey, sometimes like dancers, sometimes like two lost souls gravitating towards one another.
If you forgive the inherently unlikely set-up, and Robinson’s occasional tendency to explain more than she needs to, particularly towards the end, then ‘Soft Animals’ does have a lot going for it. There’s a richness to Sarah and Frankie’s relationship – part-mother-daughter, part-taboo-friendship, part-romance, part-reliance – that fascinates, and Robinson draws out the threads of her ethical knot nicely. Should society forgive Sarah? Could she be happy again? Is Frankie’s affection for her okay? Is there a future after losing a child?
Mmm, lovely, tasty ethical knot.
BY: FERGUS MORGAN