Humane at The Pleasance : A gripping performance that tells the extraordinary true story of the power of ordinary people ★★★★

Following a hugely successful audio drama, Polly Creed’s Humane comes to the stage to tell the true story of how one community in Brightlingsea, a small port in rural Essex, came together to stand up against animal cruelty. Only this peaceful protest soon faced the wrath of police brutality. This engaging production forces us to question the scruples of companies involved in the food chain, as well as that of our police service. What Humane has got across most masterfully is the extraordinariness of ordinary people. What is really incredible is how the bravery and momentum of this large protest group is captured by a cast of only two actors (Francesca Isherwood and Colette Zacca).

We are transported back to 1995. Isherwood’s character (Linda) portrays a young mother whose partner has been deployed to Bosnia. During a phone call, she is flustered by the daily toll of parenthood and shares her exhaustion with her partner. We never hear his voice but the compunctious tone in Isherwood’s responses reveal that the mundanity of her domestic hardships wearies him, or at least seems trivial. The nostalgia of the nineties pervades the entire performance, with plastic corded landline telephones, grainy footage from domestic camcorders used to show us real footage of the protest, and those nylon tracksuits. Isherwood’s character also serves as a homage to the 90s single-mother who has faced not quite the same consequences of Victorian acerbity, but the sanctimonious hostility that followed the conservative ideology that defined the Thatcher era (and eventually gave birth to The Jeremy Kyle Show). Zacca plays a character (Alice) that we are immediately familiar with; she is the woman sat with us at bus stops or in the queue with us at the local supermarket. You can imagine that she always has tissues and mint humbugs at her disposal in her handbag. Alice could easily be mistaken as unremarkable, even forgettable, but she is ubiquitous. For this reason, the fact that our characters meet shopping at the supermarket – a relatively routine and mundane chore – couldn’t be more perfectly written. Forgetting her wallet at home in the manic upheaval of young motherhood, Linda is saved by Alice’s offer to pay for her groceries. A boon of kindness in a world that already seems fairly abrasive. We later see that Alice’s altruism makes her anything but unremarkable, and is central to her role as an animal-rights campaigner. 

The spartan lack of props or stage-craft is not in any way detrimental to the seamless storytelling of this extortionary story. Even as we watch a scene of the two sat by the sea, you can almost smell the air and feel the chill of the English coastline in the way Zacca’s hands are clasped tightly around a cup of awful coffee, accompanied by their eyes that seem fixated onto the distance, hypnotised by the invisible sea. Linda’s baby is portrayed by a rolled blanket which invites us to use our own imagination, and this scarcity of props is conducive in reminding us of the meagreness of resources that these humble protesters would have had at their disposable. 

The thrill and energy behind a campaign is made so perceptible as the two of them organise and rally their town for the protests by making endless phone calls. Isherwood and Zacca both holding their telephones in their hands, an invisible wall suggesting they are in their respective homes, both speaking with vigour and zeal down the receiver as they mobilise their community. If Rocky Balboa was an animal-rights campaigner this would have been his training montage.  Finally, the steaming energy of the pas de deux of their phone canvassing comes to a graceful conclusion, as they twirl around one another and entwine themselves in their telephone cords. It’s as if this campaign now binds the two of them in an unbreakable friendship. 

The climax of this production is the anticipated protest itself. Coupled with the live footage of legions of protestors – some in wheelchairs, with pushchairs and walking sticks – this momentous event is quickly overshadowed by shocking police brutality. Using real audio clips of news correspondents reporting on the kettling of the protestors, the panic and mayhem has us sitting on the edges of our seats, tearful and in suspense. Isherwoods lifts her pram over her head to pass it to an invisible hand to carry out of the crowd. This segment of the performance deserved a round of applause on its own. 

Even with this seemingly unbreakable bond, we see the two explosively break apart over a fellow campaigner who is also known as to be a National Front member to Linda (who is white), but not to Alice who is Black. Polly Creed’s writing here reveals that this is not just a dramatization of a true event. Creed has managed to avoid writing a script that could’ve come across as sanctimonious, and has instead written an authentic script that avoids the portrayal of its characters as part of a homogenous group. It has addressed something that it perhaps not even widely discussed within progressive/radical groups out of fear of engaging in identity politics. Instead Creed discusses the relationship between race and activism with care, sensitivity and cutting realism.

Humane will be running until the 21st November.

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Photo Credit: Ali Wright