Review: Animal Kingdom, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs ★★★★☆

Ruby Thomas’s sophomore play sees Sam (Ragevan Vasan), a student of zoology, is in an inpatient clinic and is about to undergo a series of six family therapy sessions with his mother (Martina Laird), his father (Jonathan McGuinness) and his sister (Ashna Rabheru) under the guidance of his therapist (Paul Keating). Noami Dawson’s design creates the metal skeleton of a greenhouse-like structure in which the action plays out – perhaps the remains of an aviary to match Sam’s affinity with birds.

The room in which these sessions take place contains an unseen two-way mirror and we, the audience, are on the other side looking in. In Hampstead Theatre’s intimate Downstairs space we feel like voyeurs watching this family drama.

Animal Kingdom. Photo: Robert Day

We soon discover that each family member has their own issues to work through; Sam’s mother Rita has her own days of sadness, confined to bed; Sam’s father Tim struggles to talk about his emotions; Sam’s sister Sofia feels ignored and unloved.

Arguably Thomas’s writing does fall for some standard character tropes – the overbearing mother, the silent father, the troubled child, the overlooked sibling – and, though they are well written and well played, the ending is less of a surprise and more of an inevitability because of this – that said, it still packs a punch.

Played almost in-the-round with seats on three sides of the theatre, Lucy Morrison’s direction sees the action happen almost entirely seated. The characters change seats as we cut to each session – each time a different family member has an emotional breakthrough. Morrison cleverly places that character at the back of the stage so that the audience’s attention is directed fully towards them.

Martina Laird and Johnathan McGuinness. Photo: Robert Day

She subtly draws out the battlelines and tension points within the family unit, whilst the moment Tim opens open to his son is careful and artfully directed and superbly acted by McGuinness and Vasan bringing tears across the auditorium and sees facemasks repurposed as tissues. Laird is excellent too as the vocal mother who dominates proceedings, filling any silence with something, anything.

The production’s real strength is in how natural it feels; the writing, acting and direction combine to make it feel like we are watching a real (if slightly stereotypical) family. This could be my family or yours, given a certain set of circumstances. That is the real achievement here – a production that has reproduced real life on stage and grips you throughout.

Animal Kingdom is at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 26 March.