It centres around Jane, the stressed-out mother of two loud and uncooperative girls, aged around 5 and 6. The play starts at breakfast time, and there’s a wonderful moment of early drama when Betty, the younger child, demands to pour the milk onto her cornflakes herself. She pours a tiny trickle from about 3 foot above her bowl, and when Jane suggests speeding up a little, she spills it all over the table. This, of course, is ‘mum’s’ fault. I should mention that the two little girls are played by fully grown women. This subversion of casting isn’t dwelled upon too much, but it helps give the play some gorgeously natural moments of humour.
Once the kids are off to school, Kev, Jane’s husband, returns from a business trip, and promptly announces he’s fallen in love, but so far done nothing, with a colleague. Before this news is even half-digested, Phil, Kev’s best friend, arrives nine hours early from Scotland with his uber-confident girlfriend Lorna. Within minutes, everyone knows about Kev’s almost-infidelity, and the rest of the play follows Kev, Jane, and Phil as they try to discuss the implications, in between attending to troubled tots and demanding girlfriends.
Amelia Bullmore has previously written for television, and there’s a lot about Mammals that feels like TV drama (the good kind that you don’t see a lot of these days). It’s there in the way we are encouraged to like the characters on stage, and you can certainly see it in the cast. Anna Chancellor, Niamh Cusack, and Daniel Ryan are all very recognisable from TV. As Jane, Niamh Cusack is exhausting to watch, which I suppose is partly the point. Of the two men, I preferred Mark Bonnar, who brings a convincing sense of skewed honour to the role of Phil. But I would be hard pressed to choose between Jane Hazlegrove and Helena Lymbery, the two adult actresses who play small children so brilliantly.
In her programme notes, Amelia Bullmore says she wanted Mammals to swing sharply from the farcical to the painful, and occasionally in the first half, this happens in a slightly jarring, unconvincing way. I also felt that sometimes the actors spoke their lines a bit too quickly. It felt that rather than being a deliberate attempt to reflect the hectic state of Jane’s life, it was because the actors simply had a lot of script to get through. The dialogue is superb, and great lines whiz past before you have a chance to appreciate them.
But it’s the intervention of the children that really lifts this play out of the ordinary, for me. They encourage the audience to think about the play’s ideas about responsibility, guilt, and lack of guilt. And when compared to the slightly child-like faces and clothes of the leads, and their occasionally juvenile actions, they encourage us to question how grown up the adults’ world really is.