‘Animal’ review – Disabled man’s quest for intercourse is an important and crude comedy


Plays like Animal are a rarity, in that – shamefully – we hardly ever see stories on a London stage which demonstrate that disabled people do have sexuality and are capable of romantic and sexual relationships. Either fetishised or ‘sexless’, there remains an unnecessary taboo around sex and disabled people, and it’s to Josh Hepple’s credit that his comedy about a gay, disabled man navigating the world of dating apps (developed in partnership with Jon Bradfield) is not afraid to dive into the humour and dismantle the awkwardness around such a subject.

I mean, it opens with David who, like Hepple and All of Us actor Christopher John-Slater who plays him, has cerebral palsy and is complaining to a company about a faulty sex toy, just to paint the scene for you. He lives in a flat with support from carers Jill (a straight-talking Welsh woman played by Amy Loughton) and Derek (an awkward aspiring actor portrayed by Matt Ayleigh), but is desperate to find somebody to love and care for. A large part of Animal is his experiences of online dating, which are both unbelievably funny with the unique characters (William Oxborrow’s Alan with his bag of meat – not a euphemism – is absolutely absurd) and candid in exploring the casual ableism behind online dating.

Ghosting, for example, takes on a different meaning when it happens as soon as David discloses his cerebral palsy. One encounter underscores the serious and often underreported issue of sexual assault towards disabled people, while another conversation sees an individual cruelly – and falsely – claim David can only ever pay for sex. These messages are displayed on Gregor Donnelly’s house set by video designer Matt Powell, in a way which creatively conveys the rushing speed at which dating apps can operate.

And while the matches have been hit and miss for David, he also has to contend with Jill finding a new partner of her own in Michael (Harry Singh), everyone around him suggesting he may need further agency support, and inaccessible transport hindering a date with one match named Liam (Joshua Liburd). There’s the beginning of a really intriguing idea in this play that a disabled person’s dependency on others in an occupational capacity is acceptable to non-disabled people, but not when it comes to emotional and romantic dependency in relationships. I wish there was more of that beyond a brief concession by one of the characters at the end.

So when conversations both online and offline are encouraging David to minimise or conceal his disability – he decides not to confirm a date with Liam the day before so as to not give him an opportunity to “back out” – the impact this has on his own perception of his disability is significant, and painfully relatable to any disabled person watching in the audience who will have most likely experienced similar feelings at some point. It’s good we can see this staged in the production, but to do so in a way which doesn’t glamorise so-called ‘pity porn’ is a significant challenge. Unfortunately, I don’t think it succeeds here, instead coming across as excessive in the self-deprecating language David uses and the extent to which he would want to erase his disabled identity.

To be absolutely clear, I appreciate the creatives highlighting this sentiment which is very much real, but I also don’t think that after David’s explosive moment of self-pity – whatever you think about it – his non-disabled friend Mani (Harry Singh) should be the one to justify the outburst in some convenient exposition. Especially when hearing this from David could well have encouraged him to consider how romance and sexuality is only one way in which he can feel fulfilled as a disabled person. We see him receive praise for a talk he gave on the social model of disability, and a possible Observer commission, but there’s little to suggest that he finds satisfaction in work, or even the finer things in life, and that only amplifies the more pitiful moments in the play.

Animal is ridiculously funny – no doubt about that, given how easily its NSFW subject matter lends itself to awkward and cringeworthy humour – and it’s enlightening in its examination of disabled people’s experiences of sexuality, but David’s dogged pursuit of love is depicted as some kind of tunnel vision. It is absolutely right to focus on this particular aspect of disability, but its difficulty in applying this to – and fully considering its impact on – the wider dynamic of life as a disabled person means the representation isn’t as holistic as it could have been.

Animal is now playing at the Park Theatre until 20 May. A captioned performance will take place on 5 May, with an audio described performance scheduled for 12 May.

A fully relaxed performance is scheduled for 4 May, with semi-relaxed performances (no adjustment to sound or light levels) taking place on 24 April, 27 April, 2 May, 8 May, 17 May and 20 May.

Production Images: Piers Foley.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Animal’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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