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Patch Plays Presents Blood On Your Hands – Southwark Playhouse

Meat is Murder,” or so a placard says, with animal rights protesters – well, protesting about animal rights, outside an abattoir. They are not, according to a manager (Jordan El-Balawi), doing so on company premises, and so cannot be told by the firm to move on. Still, one of the leading lights, or at least the one with a loudspeaker in hand, Eden (Liv Jekyll), is an ex-girlfriend of Dan (Phillip John Jones), the latter being one of those cheeky chappies who likes a good natter. So what? Well, Dan works at the abattoir, leading to an awkward moment when it’s not just an animal rights protester heckling an abattoir employee, but someone confronting someone they know, and know considerably well.

Kateryna Hryhorenko - Shannon Smith. Photographer Charles Flint.
Kateryna Hryhorenko – Shannon Smith. Photographer Charles Flint.

Then there’s Kostyantyn (Shannon Smith), a veterinarian by profession but a new employee at the slaughterhouse. Kostyantyn migrated to Wales from Ukraine – some video projections of news reports suggest he did so some time before 24 February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, in what was in effect, as Kostyantyn pointed out to his wife Nina (Kateryna Hryhorenko), a scaling up of the Russo-Ukrainian War which started on 20 February 2014. Their story could well have been a play all by itself, as Nina grapples with the continuing uncertainty of how long it will take before she, still in Ukraine with young children and another one on the way, will be able to come to Britain.

In Nina’s mind, however, Kostyantyn’s veterinary career has carried on in Wales from where it started back home. The husband’s reluctance to blurt out the sorry truth about lowly paid abattoir work and shabby, overcrowded accommodation is perhaps indicative of personal pride. She has her ways of finding out, if not the entire story, that he wasn’t working as a vet at the practice where he told her he was employed. The look on Nina’s face says it all: what else could he be lying about?

Add to this Dan’s backstory, the Welsh village boy who never left home, and who won’t apparently be employed by anyone else but the abattoir. It’s all rather unfocused, with a busy stage flitting between the abattoir, Dan’s place, Kostyantyn’s place, Eden’s place, Nina’s place and the pub. On one level the attempt by this show to present a comprehensive and round picture of these characters’ lives is commendable. But it is also highly ambitious, and the various narrative strands take away from what is, presumably, meant to be the central focus, namely drawing attention to cruelty, poor standards and ill-treatment of animals in the abattoir.

An indication of this is supplied in an aggressive scene, involving a generous amount of fake blood and knives being plunged into, technically speaking, nothing: I trust it is not too much of a spoiler to confirm no actual animals were harmed in a vicious portrayal of abattoir operations. But this itself wasn’t as impactful as it might have been – did it go on a bit too long?

The production as a whole started to drag in its final half-hour or so, and by the end, I wasn’t sure why the show felt it necessary to grapple with multiple issues shallowly rather than one or two issues with greater depth. Is it a show about how repetitive menial work negatively affects mental wellbeing? Is it about how awful zero-hour contracts are? Is it really about migration? Aside from Kostyantyn and his family’s struggle, a school friend of Dan, or maybe a school bully (also El-Balawi), has himself left the village and started a career in London. The story also felt rather incomplete: only what happens to Dan is properly clarified. Did Nina ever make it to Wales?

The cast do well with what they’re given, Jones’ Dan, in particular, having a likeable charm. But the play either needs a ruthless trim, or a substantial expansion to explore the different narrative strands more fully. As it stands, it is too unfocused, and most frustratingly, had relatively little to say about animal welfare in abattoirs. I’m none the wiser as to what specific inhumane activities were going on.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

It’s Ukrainian ex-veterinarian Kostyantyn’s first day at the slaughterhouse, where he meets Dan, a happy-go-lucky Welsh lad who cracks too many jokes for his own good. Despite their grim working conditions, an unexpected friendship begins to form. Meanwhile, Kostyantyn’s wife and daughters are home in Ukraine, and Dan’s activist ex-girlfriend won’t stop pestering him at work…

Amidst bleak conditions, this is a tale of human strength, connection and hope. Will the two men save each other from slaughter?

17 JAN – 3 FEB 2024

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