Zoo by Lily Bevan is a simple, funny and delicately emotive performance about everyday heroism and a cross-Atlantic friendship in a world where animals are often easier to understand than humans.
The play’s opening is split between two locations: the Cherokee Zoo in Miami where Bonnie (Bevan), a peppy and enthusiastic zoo worker, puts anteaters in boxes and flamingos in urinals (no really, this happened) in preparation for a giant hurricane getting closer by the minute and North Yorkshire, where the deadpan, deeply Yorkshire Carole (Lorna Beckett) reluctantly gives bat tours and bemoans the interference of the dreaded South Yorkshire Bat Group, while struggling to connect with her son.
“Funny and delicately emotive performance about everyday heroism and a cross-Atlantic friendship”
The locations couldn’t be more contrasting and neither could the women: one infectiously optimistic and sunny, the other stiff, repressed and physically unable to smile unless talking about her beloved bats. But despite their differences, they are brought together by their shared love of the animal world, and what emerges is truly beautiful. Bevan does not just create characters, she creates people – real, warm people who I instantly connected with. Brought to life with wit and pathos by both actors, these performances were a real pleasure to watch. They also managed to pull off some moments of hilarious audience interaction and their accents were so brilliantly pulled off, that when their real accents were revealed in a post-show address to the audience, my mouth genuinely dropped open.
A spark of life was created from this combination of intelligent script-writing and personable performers who bounced well off each other and managed to be completely charming in completely different ways. This was woven in with moments of unaffected humour – it’s always fun for a UK audience to compare unemotional British sarcasm and an inability to say anything positive against a classic American go-get-em optimism – in ways that were subtle and effective, especially in contrast to some of the darker places the play visits. Zoo’s charm also came from the earnest appreciation both women had for the animal world, which often came in the form of a slew of facts peppered throughout the performance – did you know that bats are really generous animals? that penguins are giant sluts? that a group of orcas is called an orchestra? (not really).
However, as compelling as the relationship was, only a minimal amount of the performance was created through dialogue, instead the characters portrayed their relationship through recollections about each other and the powerful life lessons they learnt from their connection. While this monologue structure – to the audience, to a camera, to a support group – allows space for each actor to flex their far-from-insignificant talent, and places emphasis on the isolation of these women, I wanted see to see the depth of their relationship mature more, instead of having to rely on hearsay from each of them.
“Flirted with moments of real depth without fully diving in”
This was also a play of two halves, and two very different times, which could have benefitted from a slightly greater divide between them. There was great use of soundscape by sound designer Mike Winship at the beginning to convey the danger of the hurricane and cacophony of the surrounding animals. Washing over the audience in the damp, hot, enclosed underground venue, this really evoked the fear of the rising storm. This kind of aural atmosphere and tension building was highly evocative, and I wish it had carried on throughout the piece to differentiate between the different geographical locations and emotional notes. At other times, this tension was squandered as the performers rushed through moments of emotional poignancy like they were afraid to embrace the weight of silence.
While Zoo engaged with some heavy themes, highlighting animal instinct, loss, and the things we do for the people (and animals), we love, it felt like it was always at the edge of saying something big but never quite worked out how it wanted to say it. This was clear from how the sexist and cruel treatment of both women in their careers and personal lives was addressed through the inclusion of characters like Ian (self-appointed ‘superhero’ of giant otters and aura-reader of women) through voiceover. Ian managed to be the most annoying character without ever having to set foot onstage. These moments were interesting and often poignant, but never quite went far enough to offer any kind of definitive comment or conclusion.
There should never be pressure for all plays to have a big ‘message’, but this production felt like it flirted with moments of real depth without fully diving in. Nonetheless, sprinkling references to the poor treatment both Bonnie and Carole have dealt with throughout the performance did help make their relationship more moving and provide background to why they prefer animals to people. Animals are violent but they are honest –humans? They’re more insidious.
Zoo relies more on character relationships than any larger comment but in the end is gentle, beautifully acted and pulls on your heartstrings without being too heavy handed. And despite the sadder moments in it, I couldn’t help but smile even as I left the venue.
Zoo runs at Cavern at the VAULT Festival until 1st March 2020.