Florence Read’s “Children and Animals” seems very familiar to me, in recalling the heady but still meticulously controlled absurdism of student theatre by Caligula’s Alibi and Ugly Collective (to pull two names out of the air). In fact, I have never seen a play by Read before and the names of the cast also draw a blank from my enormous database of reviews. I always find a professional commitment to the absurd to be exhilarating and I can gobble up one of these plays like popcorn, so “Children and Animals” is like comfort food from a new kitchen.
The play is currently established at the Pleasance Dome. We join Tim and Sally (Nicholas Finerty and Emma D’Arcy) in a hotel room, where they are lying side by side in bed. You have clicked with this play if you have noticed that, when the bedsheets are pulled back, the couple are both wearing trousers. There is something about wearing daytime clothes under the bedsheets which is surely the very essence of childhood and child’s play. The actors have been given this scenario to follow in which they are waiting for a prostitute to arrive. But it is as if the play cannot concentrate on its own plot, and the couple are repeatedly slipping back into childish role-playing and whimsy. The couple are so distant from their story that they look strangely like mime artists. All of that looming sex only serves to emphasise how chaste they are, and, by the end of the play, we have probably categorised them as brother and sister.
The American comedian WC Fields famously enjoined performers to “never work with children or animals.” You’ll have noticed that in this play the “or” has been swapped for “and.” What exactly are these two animals, children, and inhuman clown-beings up to?
The prostitute, unlike Godot, arrives. She (Gráinne O’Mahony) is one of those people who cherishes a conspiracy theory about the 1969 moon landings, but as she begins to describe Neil Armstrong’s walk across the moon, there is suddenly a moment of mild wonder. We realise that everything on stage – sheets, carpet and all – is moon-coloured, in whites and beiges. In the twinkling of an eye, this previously innocuous hotel room has become a lunar surface. It is a great device and done superbly.
Next, they have made the prostitute dress up as a child, in toddlers’ pyjamas. Are we meant to grow serious here? For a while we are suspended aghast in uncertainty, but the play will not blink. It remains chaste and gently, sinisterly suggestive. The uncertainty is deflected into another good device, with a pinch of MR James’ supernatural trickery stirred somewhere into it. A children’s alphabet book is produced and the prostitute reads from it to settle her overexcited clients. The entries for each letter, however, become increasingly ominous, as if the book is cursed or a ghost has crept between the pages. However gleefully Tim and Sally speak, child-abuse might be written into their A-B-C.
This is the anguish of Lady Macbeth when she is trying to wash the blood off her hands – everything is spotless but nothing is clean. So “Children and Animals” is brilliantly absurd but not advisably funny, childish but very far from innocent.