Harry Bignell reviews Zoo at Vault Festival 2020.
A touching tale of two socially-awkward animal-enthusiasts crossing geographical boundaries and cultural chasms to be socially-awkward and enthusiastic about animals together; Zoo is a delight from bizarre beginning to emotional end.
The play opens with Miami based zoo keeper Bonnie, played by the play’s author Lily Bevan, preparing the zoo for an impending storm whilst describing the process to a local television channel. The journalist leaves Bonnie a body camera as move off to safety and this film becomes the media though which we follow Bonnie around her various duties, locking all of the animals away in cages as the storm begins to rage more persistently outside.
Bonnie is an effusive character who on first encounter is somewhat grating. Her relentless cheeriness is starkly juxtaposed to blunt and unemotional Carol from Yowkrshire, played by Lorna Beckett. We first meet Carol reluctantly giving a talk about bats to an equally reluctant audience of students.
The two characters are so at odds it is comical. The intelligent use of direct address sucks the audience in from the off and elicits some early laughs as we play the role first of the uninterested school children, and then of screeching animals waiting their turn to be moved to safety in Miami zoo. One luck audience member will even get fed so aim for the middle of the front row if you fancy some seed…
The play retains this comedic element throughout but the characters quickly reveal themselves to have far darker back stories. Bonnie dominates the first half of the play as she begins to open up about her life to the camera round her waist that becomes somewhat like a diary. She paints a picture of a sad childhood with a negligent mother who jumps from one junkie partner to the next, and a frustrated career where she is overlooked for promotion in lieu of a far less suitable male colleague.
The growing intensity of Bonnie’s story is matched by the increasing intensity of the storm outside, simply created with a well thought through sound deck that reverberates well off of the hard brick walls of the Vaults. This builds to a dramatic crescendo that is climatic without being overblown.
What begins as a light-hearted narrative of an unlikely friendship becomes something much deeper and sadder as the play progresses. This transition works so seamlessly due to the commitment and conviction of Bevan and Beckett. The two actors are so convincing in their roles that it is no great leap on the audience’s part to imagine scared but determined Bonnie sheltering in the urinal surrounded by squawking flamingos, or Carol stood in a cavernous, bat-covered cave telling a group of merry cavers to “bugger off”.
This story, which is as much about loneliness as it is about friendship, is perfect for the melodramatic setting that is the Vaults theatre. It is fun as well as touching, light as well as dark, and pulled off perfectly by two very accomplished performers.
I loved every minute.