Mammals

Amelia Bullmore

Bush Theatre

(2005)

Review by Philip Fisher

The Bush has a long record of discovering talented new writers and Mike Bradwell's latest discovery, Amelia Bullmore seems destined for a successful writing career.

It is quite unnerving watching the opening night of a writer's first play sitting next to her (delightful) parents. The risk of openly yawning or hating their baby's baby is not to be contemplated. Thankfully, until it veers too close to the seductions of melodrama in its final scenes, Mammals is a remarkably assured debut that combines piercing insights into the perils of love with a rich vein of humour.

Strangely, its precise subject matter is rarely seen on stage. Because of the obvious difficulties in casting, families with toddlers like Jess, 6 and Betty, 4 are almost always avoided by playwrights. The perfect solution, possibly not seen since Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills, is to use adult actors like Jane Hazlegrove and Helena Lymbery, both of whom are outstanding.

Once you have the children in your face, the problems faced by their parents become scarily apparent. Demanding, intelligent children are wearing and when you are a mother left alone for weeks at a time, snapping point is never far away.

For Niamh Cusack's Jane, who has briefly seen what it is like to tip over the edge, life is fragile. When husband Kev, played by Daniel Ryan, returns and blithely announces a new love, she wants to explode.

Miss Bullmore cleverly prevents this by allowing Kev's best friend, the witty under-achiever Phil, to arrive nine hours early, with this year's leggy "angle-poise lamp" (and prize bitch), Lorna. Inevitably, this pair played by Mark Bonnar and Nancy Carroll arrive speaking through gritted teeth after fighting on the way.

At this point, we have reached the stage of two warring couples, one almost happily married and one never likely to be married happily or otherwise, with the hidden depth charges of Jess and Betty just beneath the already choppy surface.

From there, we get a stream of fights, debates and reconciliations between almost every possible pairing, none of which ever reaches closure.

Anna Mackmin directs well, holding things together with clever timing as the plot shows signs of striving too hard for effect. She is helped by some extremely funny lines (We're a three-year long one-night stand") and a series of debates between various pairings about love, marriage and relationships.

This is a refreshing debut and Amelia Bullmore's thesis that we are little more than "mammals at the mercy of urges" is almost proven. She is extremely lucky to have a director like Anna Mackmin and a top notch cast, all on form, for a debut play.

There is a danger, with writing experience on This Life and other TV shows already on her CV, not to mention a parallel career as an actress, that we may not see all that much of her work on stage. Despite some faults, Mammals is such a strong first play, that it is to be hoped that this will not prove to be the case.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production on tour at the Yvonne Arnuad Theatre, Guildford