The term ‘dark comedy’ can often be synonymous with ‘not particularly funny,’ the darkness overwhelming any attempt at humour. But fortunately that is far from the case with Amelia Bullmore’s debut play; Mammals strikes just the right balance between drama and farce, between brightness and blackness.
Jane and Kev are a mid-thirties married couple with two young children. Niamh Cusack gives a strong, subtle performance as Jane, a good mother who clearly loves her kids but also feels increasingly stifled by the state of constant conflict life with small children entails, by the fact that she hasn’t read a book in five years. Her husband Kev (Daniel Ryan) is supportive in his own way, but his job takes him away from home a lot, and when he returns from his latest business trip it’s clear he has something weighing on his mind.
He chooses a poor moment to get confessional. Jane has invited Kev’s best friend Phil and his current girlfriend Lorna to come for a visit, and they duly turn up just as things are getting very awkward. Phil (endearingly played by Mark Bonnar) is the opposite of Kev in many ways, at forty-one he has never married, instead flitted from woman to woman, happy just to coast along. Lorna, an attractive but rather high-maintenance type, has her own ideas about their relationship. Kev and Phil appear to have a friendship that goes way back, but the couple’s arrival only serves to hike the tension up to a new level.
Bullmore’s play is a rather frantic piece, voices are often raised, but Anna Mackim’s direction ensures that the pacing never feels forced. Characters enter and exit but none of the sparkle of the language is lost. And the play is wonderfully well written – Bullmore has an impeccable ear for a good line. Though the themes touched on – trust, family, the dark side of the domestic life – are hardly original, the intelligent, often highly amusing, dialogue make sure they are dealt with memorably.
One of the main reasons the play draws as many laughs as it does is the presence of the couple’s two young daughters. Playing six-year-old Jess and four-year-old Betty, Jane Hazlegrove and Helena Lymbery pull off a difficult task, striking few false notes. Using adult actors to play young children could easily have undermined the subtlety of the production, but after the initial adjustment this is never the case. Of course there is much humour to be derived from watching grown women sitting splay-legged on the ground and shouting “cornflakes are stupid” but you quickly accept them in these roles, they slot into the play’s carefully constructed world.
Paul Wills’ simple but effective set is a picture of suburban chaos, an overflowing sink and a carpet peppered with discarded toys. This is a familiar world, these are characters it is easy to empathise with, though an unexpected event towards the end pushes the piece towards melodrama – the same point could perhaps have been made in a less dramatic fashion.
As an actress Bullmore has worked with some of the sharpest comedy writers around, having starred in I’m Alan Partridge and Chris Morris’ Jam and, on the strength of this she’s more than worthy of being counted among them; if we were in the habit of giving out star ratings then this smart, crackling comedy would come pretty close to receiving the full compliment.
This review applies to the Bush Theatre production.