“It’s like we’re happy she’s dead. Like we bonded over her being dead. Like we’re celebrating. Like we’re heartless.”
If it hadn’t been for that day, Sarah (Ellie Piercy) and Frankie (Bianca Stephens) would never have met. Brought together in the aftermath of a terrible accident, the two women find solace in each other’s company. Both are on the road to self-destruction, but they might just help each other heal. But can a relationship born from tragedy make them confront the source of their pain?
Despite its name, Holly Robinson’s debut play Soft Animals is anything but gentle. The plot moves from death threats to dance party at the snap of a finger, packing a serious punch at every turn. There are moments where the room ripples with laughter offset by a silence through which you could hear a pin drop if you can only muster up the nerve to do so.
It is Stephens and Piercy’s tour de force performances that let you forget the audience around you and draw you into the moment. They make you watch even during moments which seem embarrassingly personal and create a relationship wrought by influences out of their control. Stephens and Pierce create two very different women who, bound by the terrible accident, crave each other’s intimacy and are trying their best to help the other out of their downward spiral.
Both actresses gave a truly impressive performance, but the moment Frankie confronts Sarah about her lies blew me away. Stephens conjures up a level of pure rage I could feel my breath catch in my throat. A credit no doubt to director Lakesha Arie-Angelo. Only a confident directive hand can push an actor to put so much heart and energy into their performance.
Appearance wise Frankie stands in stark contrast to Sarah which emphasizes the devastating impact their moment of the meeting had on them both. Sarah is dressed completely in pastel colours, cream coloured sweater covering a satin blouse. Frankie on the other hand bursts into Sarah’s life wearing multicoloured yoga leggings and a bright mustard jumper.
Designer Anna Reid creates a setting which Sarah seems to disappear into. It is a childlike environment, innocent and soft. The stage is completely covered by a white furry carpet, the furniture is made from blocks of foam which you can take apart and fit back together again. Sarah is clinging to everything that reminds her of her terrible mistake as an act of self-punishment and the set design reflects this. Lighting designer Ali Hunter pushes this trapped feeling even further by creating a giant ring of light which illuminates the entire performance space, leaving no place to hide.
Soft Animals is a play which celebrates the restorative power of female relationships, but it is also a celebration of the collaborative nature which makes theatre such an arresting medium. I find it hard, impossible even to detach one part of the production from the other. Robinson has written a striking debut which covers a lot of ground with little flair and flurry, but rather with fantastic acting and a story which doesn’t skip a beat.
Soft Animals is playing at the Soho Theatre until 2 March. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.