Friday 13th March 2020 at York Theatre Royal (Studio).
Out of Character Theatre’s Less Than Human certainly feels loudly reflective of the world outside theatre doors right now. Exploring ideas about social inequality and ‘survival of the fittest’ we meet a semi-civilisation in which ‘lesser’ beings are left to die in stairwells and those on top declare in all conviction that the ‘weak’ and ‘less than’ have a duty to die and make way for those stronger and ‘better’ than them. Drawing on Darwinian ideas alongside Draconian mentalities it’s pretty heavy stuff with a few laughs thrown in for good measure.
Under direction of Juliet Forster, the production features a large cast who periodically illustrate the ongoing bustle and battle within this precarious co-existence of ‘real’ humans and the various lesser versions. At intervals, individuals peel off from the masses and give us glimpses of the frictions and decisions taking place behind closed doors. The cruel PM is undergoing significant ‘changes’ to ensure efficiency without the burdens of socialist thinking or…a feeling heart. Social responsibility is a cancerous notion and compassion becomes the new dreaded ‘c-word’. Judges are equally scary, passing medieval punishments on any ‘other’ stepping out of line or worse still, the ‘real’ folk helping them. What an idea!
Despite never really settling on or following a single narrative thread or character, the production is certainly engaging, with some strong performances dotted throughout the cast. Christie Louise Barnes shines as our ruthless PM, Chloe Timson likewise offering a strong performance as the hyper-efficient PA to the PM – who comes complete with a loose set of sardonic one liners. The cast list is a tough one to crack when it comes to identifying individuals so I’m going to take shots in the dark and say that the quirky head judge offers some welcome comedy and newbie Judge and family also give notable performances, delivering some very compelling scenes to outline the intricate conflicts within the domestic sphere.
Paul Birch’s writing includes some excellent speeches and openly engages with Shakespeare’s moral lectures within The Merchant of Venice. It’s deeply political writing and in the right hands, key cast members make the most damning and satirical moments land with a fittingly heavy thud. There are admittedly a fair few rough edges here with some slightly uncertain performances and particularly with some of the transitions which make the piece feel overly nomadic, but there are a number of great performances and some very nice segments of physicality and ghoulish visuals achieved (Design: Hannah Sibai, Lighting: Johnny Ellis).
Looking at troubling ideas plaguing any attempt at civilised society against the current backdrop of pandemic and panic, Less Than Human is both timely and unapologetically interrogative of how we treat our most vulnerable, who we think we are and who we want to be.
Less Than Human plays York Theatre Royal’s Studio space until March 14th 2020 and you can find tickets here.