First Love is the Revolution

Soho Theatre, London (****)

© Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

© Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Ever daring, ever innovative, Soho’s artistic director, Steve Marmion has found a delectably original, daffy and hilarious tale of crossing boundaries by a new Australian writer, Rita Kalnejais. In fact Kalnejais’s credentials are considerable; she’s worked with Sydney Theatre Company and the wonderful Belvoir company whose work over here has thrilled and impressed by turns.

Kalnejais deals in the potentially explosive subject of love between humans and animals. Some may remember it as the catalyst in Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? in which an obsessive love for a goat becomes the basis for a discussion about the morality of love that knows no boundaries.

Kalnejais has fewer qualms, or at least such as they are, emerge only towards the end in an explosive outcome triggered by the love-match between James Tarpey’s gauche 14 year old teenager, Basti, and Emily Burnett’s burgeoning young female fox cub, Rdeca.

Fears are raised, but they come more from Hayley Carmichael’s mother fox, Cochineal when she counsels her young cubs not to go anywhere near humans: `they are more cruel than you can imagine’.

© Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

© Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

Anthropomorphising animals, we know, can be fraught with danger, twee sentimentality springing out of every pore. But little of that appears in Marmion’s grungey/punky, spry production or in Kalnejais’s script which captures youthful lust, curiosity, rebellion, innocence and tragedy at one fell swoop. She has some cogent parallels to make, too, between humans and animals that will make anyone seeing this think twice before putting mouse or fox to the slaughter.

Here fox cubs speak human talk; Basti understands the foxes. Dogs talk – or growl – at chickens, foxes smash up a passing mole. It’s by no means plain sailing and actually ends in a blood-bath. Is Kalnejais signalling that crossing boundaries in whatever form can only lead to disaster?

The jury’s out, but like a fairy-story for adults, you can’t help but buy into Kalnejais’ world spurred on by some gorgeous performances, typically from Carmichael but making their professional stage debuts, Emily Burnett’s heel-sprung Rdeca, bursting with life and love, Tarpey’s shy teenager and Samson Kayo’s burly, blood lusting Alsatian. Great support too from experienced hands, Simon Kunz and Lucy McCormick.

Strange, but as a stranger, give it a great big, warm welcome.  First love is indeed a revolution. It can turn your world upside down. Kalnejais shows that, but with love, warmth, humour and sorrow.

First Love is the Revolution runs at Soho Theatre to Nov 21, 2015

This review first appeared in Reviewsgate, Oct 2015 and slightly amended here.