Review: Animal at Hope Mill Theatre is a “Hilarious, challenging and heart-breaking navigation of disability and sexuality”

Animal at the Hope Mill Theatre is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal parts.

A comedy by Jon Bradfield from a story by Jon Bradfield and Josh Hepple, it follows David Hunter (Christopher John-Slater, All of Us) a 25-year-old gay man with severe Cerebral Palsy as he ventures into the world of hookup apps for the first time.

Unsurprisingly, Grindr does not offer much in the way of viable suitors and David is left to navigate the intersection of disability and sexuality, all while dodging microaggressions and figuring out who to block.

Supported by his two care assistants Jill (Amy Loughton, Henry V and The Tempest) Derek (Matt Ayleigh, Timons of Athens) and best friend Mani (Harry Singh, But I’m a Cheerleader the musical) David comes of age spectacularly, chaotically and with more than a few stories to tell.

From start to finish, Animal is an impeccable production.

The flaws of every character are acknowledged and explored in a way that humanises them rather than vilifies them. David, the protagonist is perhaps the best example of this.

He is messy, witty and sometimes, cruel. Christopher John-Slater’s performance is captivating.

He is able to convey the acute frustration David feels with a stark vulnerability that perfectly contrasts his comic timing and makes every joke land twice as hard. It is truly refreshing it is to see a fleshed-out disabled main character who is allowed to be complex and flawed and human, rather than existing solely to serve as a plot device or a lesson learnt for the non-disabled characters.

Harry Singh and Matt Ayleigh give especially good comic performances as Mani/Michael and Derek/Nuno respectively. They each have an affinity for comedy that only serves to elevate the more heartfelt moments.

Joshua Liburd’s (The Great Gatsby) performance as David’s love interest Liam is nuanced and multifaceted. He is, like every other character, complex. Liburd conveys this well and manages to keep the audience at arm’s length while still being extremely confident and capable on stage.

William Oxborrow (Hamlet) potentially had the most challenging role of the night, donning multiple different hats to play multiple different roles. Despite this, Oxborrow is anything but stretched thin. Each character is unique and completely distinct from the last, leaving you to wonder if they are being played by the same man.

Amy Loughton plays Jill, David’s live-in carer and friend who, like David, is dipping her toe into dating. Loughton performs with warmth and depth that adds to the overall strength of Animal as a show.

The set – designed by Gregor Donnelly – works so well. It aids the storytelling as it feels lived-in and authentic despite being fairly simple. Even with only small portions of each room visible to the audience, you are transported to the place described, whether it be a crowded gay bar, a train carriage or simply someone’s living room.

The video elements – designed by Matt Powell – add an extra dimension to Animal and work well. It is a simple yet extremely effective way to convey online exchanges between characters that is easy to follow while also being inventive.

Despite being two hours in length, Animal is extremely well-paced, and the audience remains engaged for the duration.

Every line of dialogue is delivered in a way that perfectly serves the momentum of the story. Bronagh Lagan’s expert direction allows the mood to shift from hilarious, tender and genuinely uncomfortably tense and back again without ever feeling unnatural or mechanical.

As story originator Josh Hepple said: “If we remove the ability to fall in love from the human condition, we are removing so much of what it means to be alive.”

At its heart, that is what Animal hinges on the desire to love and be loved in return. For so long, disabled people have not been allowed to be anything other than props in stories, Animal places disabled people and their stories at the forefront where we rightly belong.

Animal is on at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester until Sunday 2nd April

Tickets can be booked here


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