What will first strike any clever person who heads to the BT in 4th week for Mammals is the sheer chaos of the set: crayons, cornflakes and dirty laundry litter the stage, immediately evoking a sense of complete disorder. Onto this platform of havoc bursts Jane: sleepless, irritated and overwhelmed by her children, whose constant questions about hairy fannies and hysterical fussing over breakfast make for fantastically funny viewing. Of course, the comedy provided by Jess and Betty cannot diminish the very real tide of anxiety and exhaustion experienced by their mother; her husband Kev’s early arrival home signifies the turning point between an average (yet inevitably stressful) day and a life-changing confession.
The play was first performed at the Bush Theatre in 2005 and achieved great success both there and, later, at the Oxford Playhouse. Actress Amelia Bullmore received worldwide recognition for this, incredibly her first play; in the same way director Ruby Thomas is to be congratulated from making the leap from stage to page so effortlessly. What struck me very early on with this production was the real professionalism of both cast and crew; they were entirely focussed, entirely intent on the realism so intrinsic to Mammals.
It’s a perfect merge of fast-paced, very unfeigned dialogue, coupled with actors who know how to deliver it. Bella Hammad’s Jane is utterly convincing, holding both herself and the audience’s attention, accurately conveying her inner turmoil as guests come to visit and she must don her Brave Face. Kev’s confession – delivered in a forthright, very moving way by Rhys Bevan – combines the male desire to tell and thus be purged, leaving the secret wafting through the air between the couple like a bad smell.
The real achievement of the play, however, lies with their kids: Bullmore embraced the use of adults as opposed to casting children in the 2005 production, and this piece of theatre is no different. Jessica Norman (Jess) and Martha Ellis-Leach are both stellar, bringing together the girls’ insufferable argumentativeness and their very believable curiosity about, well, everything (see above). Scenes in which their poor mum rushes around cutting her eyes at the clock and bellowing for them to hurry while they play ‘Doctor’ are imbued with a naturalism which, Thomas claims, is at the heart of the work.
As the tagline so aptly puts it, this is a play “for anyone who’s in, has ever been in, or will ever be in a family”. Run don’t walk to the BT in 4th week – this is sure to be a hit.
– Zoe Apostolides