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Review of Animus at the Laban Theatre

AnimusA quick Google search of the word ‘animus’ brings up the following definitions: 1) hostility or ill feeling, 2) motivation to do something and 3) in Jungian psychology, the masculine part of a woman’s personality. The word animus isn’t spoken in Animus, but all those definitions are suitable for Charlotte Donne (at this performance, Molly Osborne: the role is shared with Claire Keenan) in this student production. There’s a perennial ‘problem’ with student productions, simply that all characters, irrespective of what age range they would reasonably be expected to be, are performed by students.

This is less of an issue here, with significantly older characters being relatively minor roles, or otherwise off-stage altogether. It’s a bold move for any theatre to take on a new musical, and bolder still to entrust the performing of it to people still in training. But if any of these performances came across as more than a tad stilted, I suspect this has more to do with the eighteenth-century setting and the airs and graces with which the wealthier classes were expected to display (at least in public), than anything else.

The process of making some working-class characters assume the role of establishment figures (for reasons explained in the narrative) provides a source of amusement in an otherwise largely dark plot. Compulsory education in Britain was still more than a century away, so not being of noble birth often meant limited vocabulary, summarised best in a line from one of several prostitutes: “What the f*ck is ‘vulgarity’?” Probably the best musical number of the evening is led by their pimp, Fanny Penhaligon (Simone Sullivan).

AnimusIn terms of the story, well, we’ve been here before. The lead character is wronged and sets about obtaining justice. The term ‘justice’ should really be interpreted as ‘revenge’. Some truths are revealed a little too late, and too many people than were strictly necessary have lost their lives. Sweeney Todd, anyone? There are twists in the story, a few of which were predictable, the rest
unexpected.

The opening number, ‘The Last Good Man in London’, goes at quite a pace. Some choruses and verses later on go faster still, calling to mind ‘Getting Married Today’, from another of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, Company. A couple of ensemble numbers are jaunty and celebratory, and show some excellent choreography (Fabian Aloise). But, the story being what it is, the song-and-dance moments are quite rare. The ‘I wish’ song, ‘Capable’, demonstrates Molly Osborne’s clear and compelling vocal as Charlotte Donne; shortly thereafter, Harvey Westwood as Joe Grey, a self-confessed thief, commands the stage with a persuasive presence, and a sublime voice to boot.

Still images projected help to provide a sense of time and place of any given scene. The staging is arguably a little too spartan, but then again, the stage is never busier than it needs to be, and this production seems to rely on the music, book and lyrics to advance the story rather than visual effects. Some inventive lighting (Malcolm Richards) portrayed a harrowing early scene very well. The pace ebbs and flows, as many a good musical does, allowing for a range of human passions and emotions to be expressed.

A considerable amount of new writing tends to be condensed in such a way that the show does not require an interval, or otherwise it comes across as containing songs and dialogue that pad the show out, extending its running time unnecessarily. Animus is neither of those things, and the running time, just a touch over two and a half hours, flew by. A complex plot with a beautiful score.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

London: 1757
Following the death of wealthy merchant Ernest Donne his three children bicker over their portions of his estate. In a patriarchal society, the sole male heir expects to receive his father’s business, but those gathered to hear the reading of the will are stunned to learn that Cotton Wharf, and control of its warehouses, will instead pass to Charlotte, the eldest daughter…

Caught in a time of immorality, keeping company with murderers, liars and thieves, can Charlotte survive long enough to take revenge on those who would see her dead simply for being a woman surpassing her station? In a city rife with danger and degenerates, can she stay pure and resist corruption, or will each encounter change her further from her former self?

An original story with original music, Animus brings to life London in the industrial revolution where crime is rife and no one can be trusted. Originally commissioned for the MTA in 2016, it deals with themes of murder, revenge class and society and ultimately, female triumph in the face of adversity.

Listings Info
Animus
Friday 1 December – 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Saturday 2 December – 7:30pm
Laban Theatre, SE8 3DZ

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