Big Brother meets Educating Yorkshire in Sundial Theatre Company’s original new play, Animal Management. Rather than a offering a critique of reality TV, the focus of the drama is instead directed towards the education system in the UK. What Animal Management offers is an amplified view of what might happen if we continue with our damaging obsession with assessments, league tables and over-analysing exam results.
The plot centres on an intense learning facility where lagging students board and are constantly filmed. They are given rewards for good test results and positive behaviour, as well as punishments for rule-breaks. And it’s no coincidence that the subject they’re failing in is Maths, since the motif of numbers underpins the play’s central concern – the worrying act of turning young people into walking statistics to be analysed numerically. On top of this, ‘ordinary’ school pupils vote for their favourite ‘competitors’ based on what they’ve seen in live streams. The six students we focus on represent various character types – the geeky teacher’s pet, the wild child, the introvert and so on – and even the audience might find themselves aligning with a favourite.
The young actors perform confidently in the small Sweet Novotel venue, each embodying their roles distinctly. Particular standouts are Leo Kemsley as rebellious Beks and Imogen Moody playing anxiety-ridden Fern. Lighting is also used effectively in the sparse staging and the setup of the colour-coded wall displays creates an immediate sense of anticipation and dystopian manipulation.
However, the play actually suffers from the hour-long Fringe format. The third act meltdown feels rushed and loses its sense of verisimilitude and the actors, able as they are, can’t really convince us of the chaos. Animal Management would benefit from a longer script where the crescendo and disintegration of the experiment unfold more slowly and believably. As it is, the play loses its grip on the audience at the key turning point.
Animal Management is a competent attempt to explore important issues surrounding education as well as mental health. The play also has some cracking one-liners that show promising ability from writer-director Duncan Walthew. Yet what starts as an interesting premise doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.