A play about a farmer who feels he must resort to culling whole species in order to save his livelihood could, on the face of it, be no more topical. With much discussion over whether or not to cull the badger population in an effort to stem the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and a proposed (and possibly overdue) ban on the importation of ash trees to try and prevent the spread of a disease to our own native stocks, there are issues worthy of discussion and debate aplenty here.
Kieran Lynn’s Bunnies, currently playing at the New Diorama theatre, is not that sort of play. Instead, it is a curious attempt at political satire that seems to revel in the crudity of its allegory, just as it revels in acts of violence and bad taxidermy. It is set on a farm, and there are animals involved – but Animal Farm this is not.
Stamper (Richard Pulman) is a struggling farmer whose smallholding is falling apart in front of his eyes, despite the hard work of daughter Eva (Annette Chown) and the complete indifference of son Max (Jolyon Westhorpe). The chance discovery of a pamphlet detailing how many species are not native to the UK – from the grey squirrel to American crayfish, and the European rabbits which give the play its name – convinces Stamper that exterminating the species on the list will mean more food for native breeds, and prosperity will return to his farm.
Despite Eva’s protestations, Stamper’s “solution” starts to work – especially when he finally manages to get Max to participate. Pulman never really feels in control of Stamper’s character, which paradoxically makes it harder to sympathise with Stamper’s own increasing lack of control. His portrayal contrasts sharply with Chown’s earnest compassion, which feels consistent and comforting throughout.
It is Westhorpe’s Max who entertains throughout. As his involvement in Scamper’s scheme grows, further facets of his character unfold in much the same way as the central, box-like prop from which designer Stuart Crewes crafts tables, war charts and even carpeting.
The are flashes of good comedy in the piece – a running joke about the use of pausing for comic effect works well, for example. If the political allegory were much less bluntly obvious, and there were enough confidence in the writing to do away with the annoying radio voice that tells the audience what will happen in the next scene, Bunnies could be a rather thought-provoking play. As it is, it feels like the chairs in the opening slapstick scene: dodgy assembled, and could fall apart at any moment.
Bunnies continues at the New Diorama until November 3, then tours to Salberg Studios, Salisbury (November 6–10) and The Brewery, Bristol (November 13–24).