Despite the seeming obsession the British public has with animals, I personally have never been a fan. Yet nowadays a modern British high street seems incomplete without the image of a coiffed canine peering out of its owner’s designer handbag, or a terrier sashaying along sporting the latest in fashionable overcoats. Society welcomes its pets into home and heart, willingly paying for vets’ bills and buying the most expensive food to treat ‘man’s best friend’. The animals themselves are capable of conveying their emotions too – their owner is fine-tuned to feelings of hunger, love, affection and even pain. So if these animals can behave on some spectrum of human emotion, why not depict them as such? A premise that First Love is the Revolution explores by treating its central family of foxes entirely in human terms. If the script didn’t talk about them as foxes, for a large portion of the play it wouldn’t be entirely obvious that they weren’t humans. Rita Kalnejais gives her animal characters human behaviour in her work and she does it with a startling amount of realism.
The story focuses on Rdeča (Emily Burnett), the youngest of three foxes living in a den with mother Cochineal (Hayley Carmichael), brother Thoreau (Samson Kayo) and sister Gustina (Luck McCormick). They behave as child siblings do, playing and fighting and hunting at night. Then Rdeča strays too far into the backyard of human Basti (James Tarpey) and his father Simon (Simon Kunz). Basti and Rdeča form an unusual friendship, connecting with each other in a way that neither have with others before. The concept of animal and human doesn’t matter, only their friendship. Cochineal does not take well to her daughter’s choice in a mate, recognising all too clearly the absence of the father figure in Rdeča’s life, which causes Rdeča to rebel and be forced to face the consequences.
If Kalnejais’s script has human intent, director Steve Marmion (Artistic Director of the Soho Theatre) brings it to life in a modern, punchy setting. The set is semi-dystopian; the costumes dishevelled and impactful (there is clear artistic vision here from Anthony Lamble); the music grungy, urban and full of drum ‘n’ bass remixes. The icing on the cake here is the distinct personalities that Marmion draws out of the actors for their animals. Just as in humans, there are some stereotypes that permeate through – the foxes are wily yet protective, the chickens (Carmichael and Kunz) are skittish, absent-minded and oh so typically British, the dog Rovis (Kayo) is aggressive and brutish. There is no indication as to what kind of dog Rovis is, but in my mind I clearly see a gruff, bad-tempered bulldog, collared by a steel link lead and ready to pound on any prey with slobbery jowls.
The star of the production is Carmichael. As Cochineal she has perfectly judged the line between human conviction and fox-like movement. She strokes and paws at her children, hisses at possible threats just as a mother would and moves about set in a wary yet curious manner. The two leading lovers also give strong performances, particularly for their professional stage debuts. Burnett is inquisitive and strong willed, Basti a typically awkward teenage boy. Their chemistry is believable, which leaves an unsettling feeling upon remembering that one is actually meant to be a fox and the other a human. As the two get closer and closer, the lines become more and more blurred, a bold move in Kalnejais’s writing. It’s definitely a point in the story that will deliver a mixed reaction of equal magnitude – some will buy into the human aspect of their connection, others put off entirely by their differences. Apart from this aspect, all other key emotional reactions are incredibly believable and delivered with great skill from the entire cast.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand the bond between a pet and their owner. But this play is about the connections between family, the new discoveries that adolescents make and the struggle between conformity and individuality. Animal or not, those points come across loud and clear.
First Love Is A Revolution is playing at the Soho Theatre until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo: Jane Hobson.