Tuesday, May 28

London Zoo – Southwark Playhouse

London Zoo is set at the dawn of the Millenium, as print media faced the oncoming juggernaut of online content. Job losses and a decline in quality journalism came in its wake, except in a few rarified and fortunate corners. This play highlights the subtle ways in which prejudice, power and ambition are thinly veiled by passive aggressive marketing jargon, jokey office politics and the cold reality of number crunching.

As someone who left print media at the turn of the century and then worked for an online brand that expanded in the boom, I can attest to the accuracy of some of the vibes seen in this odd window onto that period. Much like this fictional news corporation, GAY.com, where I held the role of Editor, imploded due to rapid expansion, shareholder tyranny and phantom accountancy.

Farine Clarke wrote London Zoo in 2007 after working as a reporter on medical magazines, before serving on executive boards in publishing. While much of the dialogue and narrative that Clarke creates has a semi-vintage verité, the collision of acquisitions and mergers with the media industry proved a toxic and depressing bloodbath for creatives on the frontline. The destructive nature of that hunt for profit at the cost of editorial, artistic freedom and job security are lightly tackled, but considering the savagery of reality, this satire didn’t quite bite with the ferocity it could.

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Anirban Roy plays Sunil, one of the corporate bigwigs whose racist take on the black editor of a newspaper he hopes to acquire proves confusing to the white executives in his charge. Can someone from an ethnic minority flex bigotry with greater impunity due to the colour of their skin AND a powerful status? That question can be answered by looking at the existence of Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman.

Odimegwu Okoye is excellent as Kelvin, who patiently explains that yes, people with brown skin can be racist and potentially guilty of pulling up the ladder of opportunity behind them. His quiet, patient tone belies the wary control of a black man who knows he can’t raise his voice or show frustration with the same liberty as his white colleagues. Kelvin’s stillness and eloquent wisdom are in stark contrast to the troupe of fools who are greedily circling his business. Okoye has an impressive stage presence that feels a tad underused. Give that man a leading role, he’s dynamite to behold.

The bulk of advertising revenue that once supported the crumbling spine of legacy media has since been gobbled up by a dystopian clique of unregulated Silicon Valley honchos who prioritize profits and growth over basic decency. London Zoo is like a peek at where that rot started to take root but doesn’t quite highlight the grim reality for either the talent which got lost in the digital ‘evolution’ or its effect on wider society and the political climate.

The second half features a tonal twist that’s entertaining but didn’t quite deliver the sensation that it perhaps aimed for. The curveball black humour in the finale felt too tame to hit its target. It’s a bold idea but could be punchier. The truth is that online capitalism has gone so dark, savage and surreal that London Zoo’s comedy climax felt inadequately benign.

London Zoo is at Southwark Playhouse until March 30th. https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/london-zoo/

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 12th March 2024
North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.