Every year at fringe festivals, there is a hot topic. In 2018, it was mental health; in 2019, it was toxic masculinity; and in 2020, the phrase on everybody’s lips is climate change. There is a certain pressure for producers thus to relate their show to that topic, in order to grab the attention of theatregoers and make sure that their show appears current. However, in this need to make sure a show sounds current and relevant to the zeitgeist sometimes comes at the cost of integrity. It sometimes comes at the cost of knowing exactly what your show is really about.
Zoo bills itself as a lot of different things. According to press copies, it’s about climate change, it’s about friendship, it’s about the decisions we make during crisis, it’s about the relationship between humans and animals. It’s about a lot of things, and I feel this is the fundamental issue with Lily Bevan’s script; it tries to cover too much ground in too short a time, and ends up covering none of it in depth. Whatever message is at the core of play gets lost in the sheer enormity of it. Even when running 15 minutes past it’s allotted timeslot in the VAULT Cavern, it still felt like there was a lot left uncovered. Perhaps this show would be better in a conventional theatre setting, where Bevan has the freedom to expand the story without the pressure to condense it all into an hour. Her voice as a writer is engaging, but it feels like she is rushing to include too much in too short a time frame.
In a nutshell, Zoo is about a friendship between two zookeepers which transcends loneliness, the Atlantic ocean and even death. At the heart of it is a really beautiful story about two women who struggle to connect with human beings and are ultimately soulmates, and Lorna Beckett and Bevan, who acts as well as wrote and co-directed Zoo, do an impressive job of making this unlikely friendship tangible. However, the depth to these characters, and indeed the cast of pre-recorded male voices, is lacking.
Although we do get glimpses into both Bonnie and Carol’s pasts, nothing is explored fully. For example, at one point Bonnie talks about her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic with a string of controlling boyfriends. Already there’s a lot there that could be explored, questions about why Bonnie’s mother turns a blind eye to the way these men treat her and how this affected Bonnie. We get some anecdotes about Bonnie’s pet puppy and her mother not caring when the dog died, but the picture painted of Bonnie’s mother lacks any humanising features. There is no sympathy for her addictions or explanations as to why she feels the need to verbally abuse Bonnie. She may as well be Cruella Deville. Similarly, the portrayal of Bonnie and Carol’s sleazy boss Ian feels like a caricature of workplace sexism. The cast of Yorkshire characters fell into fairly predictable stereotypes. Although Bonnie and Carol themselves were engaging characters, I found it really hard to relate to them because the supporting cast around them seemed flat. The characters are there but the context of the world around them isn’t.
Zoo is a promising show, but I think it needs to allow itself to either expand outwards by running as a standard show with an interval, or find a clearer focus for exactly what it is Bevan is trying to say. There’s potential there, but it feels like a show that hasn’t decided exactly what it is about yet.