I’m not a fan of promenade performances, especially those involving the audience being led in a group from one set piece to another. Partly, this is about laziness and sore knees, but mostly it’s a genuine difficulty in maintaining a theatrical suspension of disbelief when the narrative momentum is fundamentally dictated by the walking speed of the group’s slowest members. Plus there are all the distractions of the selected venue, in this case Edinburgh Zoo.
given its child-like innocence, it’s fair to say there’s little here not to like.
That said, this new joint production—by Grid Iron (specialists in site-specific theatre), Lung Ha Theatre Company (Scotland’s leading theatre group for people with learning difficulties), the city’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, and the Edinburgh International Science Festival—definitely has its good points. It makes effective use of Lung Ha’s unusually large ensemble cast, while very sensibly not abusing any of the Zoo’s resident animals in the name of cheap entertainment. Plus, at the heart of Morna Pearson’s tale is both an examination of the scientific method and a genuine emotional story of a sibling rivalry with very believable consequences.
Famous cryptozoologist Dr Vivienne Stirlingshire (a believably brittle characterisation from Nicola Tuxworth) has returned from her latest expedition with a previously undiscovered member of the animal kingdom, although descriptions of the “Something Or Other” vary depending on who you ask. The Zoo’s director, her brother Henry (a deliciously OTT Antony Strachan), is at best sceptical, and—thanks to a deep-rooted rivalry grounded in childhood jealousy—decides to sabotage her great unveiling by freeing the creature from its wooden crate. Much of the subsequent story is essentially a stressed-out Vivienne and the zoo’s staff desperately trying to find it.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the youngest audience members who regularly point out the Something Or Other’s distinctive purple “faeces” left behind in bushes, flowerbeds and along the sides of pathways. Compared to such scatological details, the visible hierarchy of Vivienne, her “assistant”, her “assistant’s assistant”, and her “assistant’s assistant’s assistant” seems positively sophisticated in comparison, and that’s before we sight strange hen and stag parties parading around the Zoo like its world-famous penguins. That said, the most sophisticated laughs happen in the Members’ House, when we’re briefly dragged into make up the numbers at a retiring zoo-keeper's leaving do.
There are, admittedly, a few slightly-clunky moments when it comes to plot exposition, and some people might well argue against one keeper’s suggestion that zoos remain a longterm solution to an ever-increasing rate of species extinctions. The ending, too, is just as sweet as you might expect, with the two siblings finally enjoying some kind of reconciliation. Yet, given its child-like innocence, it’s fair to say there’s little here not to like.