Lessons from The Animal Kingdom

Sam   “We’re bonobos in our family.  A hundred percent. . .”   

Daniel   “Bonobos?”  

 Sam   “They have female alphas.  They can be pretty aggressive actually.”  

Ashna Rabheru as Sofia, Jonathan McGuinness as Tim, Ragevan Vasan as Sam, Paul Keating as Daniel and Martina Laird as Rita (Photo: Robert Day)

There is always a problem with how to stage plays about psychotherapy or counselling.  Each participant should sit on identical chairs at identical heights opposite each other.  Unless you place your actors on a continuous revolve on a circular stage you will not be able to see the full face of everyone who is talking.  So despite Robert Day’s lovely photograph above of The Animal Kingdom which was taken from the one side of the square that the audience was sat on, I spent all of Martina Laird’s first and important session, as Rita, looking at her back.

The other issue that I have with Ruby Thomas’s play The Animal Kingdom  is the large number of participants in the room.  Daniel (Paul Keating) the mild mannered therapist has summoned a family therapy group of his patient Sam (Ragevan Vasar), a university student who has just attempted suicide and who has a history of self harming.   His parents and his sister make five in the room which felt for me too many to be constructive. 

Even with Daniel’s suggestion of opening statements for people to express how they are feeling and what they expect to happen in the session, we can see each thinking about what they will say rather than listening to who is speaking at the time. 

That said there were things I liked about the play.  Sam has this feel for wildlife, he tells us about a nest of swifts outside the window that he fears for in the bout of extremely hot weather.  He also recalls being in a pub with his father when he was served lamb and when he asked what it was his father explained that it was a baby sheep and he was horrified.  Sam is now a vegan.  He describes his father as a member of the animal kingdom, “Dad doesn’t speak.  He just observes.  Like a hippopotamus.  Eyes, ears and nose above the water.  Everything else underneath.”

Ragevan Vasan as Sam (Photo: Robert Day)

The main animal parallel is the quote about bonobos, miniature chimpanzees, the closest relative to humans among the great apes, in fact in all the animal kingdom, despite us having 70% the same DNA as a banana!  The comment is a dig at his mother Rita.  Sam was studying zoology at university.  He tells us that not all animals are heterosexual and that orcas have been known to self harm. 

Sam’s mother Rita (Martina Laird) is very vocal in the session.  Her entrance is all about, “Hello hello my darling boy!”  but her conversation is all about her view of the situation and attributing blame whether to the university for not caring for Sam, Sam’s private school or her husband for initiating the divorce. Her interjections and negative comments make her a dislikeable person with little or no redeeming qualities and to some extent unbalance the play.  I think Rita would have been better helped in a session on her own with a counsellor.

There are two things that didn’t ring true:  the self harmers I know hid the harming on the underside of their arm or on their thighs, not the top of their forearm and therapists don’t disclose their own situations with clients. 

Naomi Dawson’s light set has a garden view at one end with the audience on the other three sides.  The box of tissues on the table is completely accurate.  The cast change chairs for each of the six sessions.

I’d like to see more of Ruby Thomas’s writing about human interaction with wildlife and how they impinge on our feelings.  A few weeks ago I saw a small muntjack deer that had been hit by a car trying to get back up the sloping verge into the woods and it deeply affected me and continues to do so.  A pair of bonobos were in one of the planes caught at Gander in transit to Columbia Zoo and recorded in the musical Come From Away.  The female Unga was pregnant and lost her baby but went on to have two more in Ohio.  Is it a part of our humanity how much we care for the animal kingdom? 

Paul Keating as Daniel and Ragevan Vasan as Sam (Photo: Robert Day)

Production Notes

The Animal Kingdom
Written by Ruby Thomas

Directed by Lucy Morrison



Martina Laird

Paul Keating




Ragevan Vasan



Martina Laird



Jonathan McGuinness




Director: Lucy Morrison

Designer:  Naomi Dawson

Lighting Designer: Holly Ellis

Sound Designer: Bella Kear

Fight Director: Maisie Carter


Running Time:One hour 30 minutes without an interval

Booking to 26th March 2022


Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Eton Avenue

Swiss Cottage

London NW3 3EU

Phone: 020 7722 9301

Website: www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Tube: Swiss Cottage

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

on  24th February 2022