There is a moment in Eddie Perfect’s first foray into playwriting that strikes me as indicative of the play as a whole. After the destruction and bloodletting of the previous two hours, one of the characters insists that this chastised group of friends will swear off meat and become vegetarians. There is a pause, and then they all laugh, as if the idea itself is unthinkable. What they are saying is 'we probably won’t learn anything, but even if we do, we certainly won’t change our behaviour'.
Perfect has his targets firmly in sight with The Beast. The play opens on a boat, as three friends, Rob (Tom Budge) Simon (Hamish Michael) and Baird (Travis Cotton) and a skipper (Hayden Spencer) flounder in the open seas after a violent storm. It’s reminiscent of The Tempest, with class differences at play, and the survival of the group in question. But before this scene comes to a conclusion, we find ourselves in the newly purchased country home of Rob and his wife Sue (Virginia Gay). As they are unpacking, Simon and his wife Gen (Sheridan Harbridge) pop in, and the idea of a feast is cemented, one that involves killing and eating the beast of the title, a young calf.
The final couple in this coterie is Baird and Marge [Kate Mulvany], and they are perfectly aware that class distinctions don’t exactly favour them. She’s an alcoholic and he’s impotent, but they are pretty much the nicest members of this rag-tag group of tree-changers. At least they are willing to get their hands dirty when the butcher fails to show. Although, when it comes to slaughter time, no one escapes cleanly.
Middle-class pretension is pretty much the only thing on the menu here. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. The theatre audience is mostly made up of white, middle-class people just like those on stage. And there are definitely some ghoulishly squeamish moments in The Beast. The slaughter of the animal is downright brilliant; shocking and grotesque, hilarious and disturbing in equal measure, it’s a genuine coup de theatre.
This play aims to make its audience uncomfortable, and in many ways it does. Our sad conformity and predilection for trends gets a good skewering, and there is a magnificent monologue from Baird on the changing nature of lettuce. But the best way to disturb an audience is to play with its emotions, and The Beast fails in this regard.
One of the problems is ironically one of the main themes of the play: authenticity. The scenario relies on the credibility of these friendships, and there just isn’t any. At one point, Baird says 'Friendship’s got nothing to do with liking people', and while it gets a laugh, it hints at a deeper problem. We may not have to like the characters but we need to believe them, and most of the time I didn’t. Everyone is encouraged to push the characters into farce, and feverish stage business involving people shoving food into each other’s mouths suggests this is where the play wants to take them. But I would have preferred a little restraint, a little more grounding in reality.
As it is, the play feels easier on the audience than it should. While we may have started cooking with verjuice recently, or begun insisting on Maldon salt for our batard – and therefore become the actual targets of the satire of this play – we are let off the hook by the extreme characters before us. We are encouraged to tut-tut and be relieved that at least we’re not that bad.
The production itself is pretty slick. All the performers shine, and as an ensemble they deliver the goods. Tom Budge is consistently hilarious, and Sheridan Harbridge brings a tightly wound vulnerability to the table. Travis Cotton is in fine form as the most credible person in the room. Virginia Gay is a revelation as the winsome but ultimately deadly Sue, and Hamish Michael and Kate Mulvany add their usual class to the evening.
Sets (by Luke Ede) and lighting (by Niklas Pajanti) are first class, and enable lots of rapid and seamless changes. It’s actually quite a lavish show, which runs counter to the message of the play. But that shouldn’t cause the audience too much discomfort. The play is too funny to encourage us to learn anything, and even if we do, we certainly won’t change our behaviour.
Here's Eddie on what to expect:
"It’s a satirical piece about three middle-class treechange couples who buy a cow to be humanely slaughtered for a dinner party where they are celebrating the animal. It's nose-to-tail eating, they all take a part of it away for this multi-course degustation meal but the guy who’s supposed to do the slaughtering doesn’t turn up for whatever reason. They’re faced with the decision about whether they kill the cow themselves and the decision they make has massive repercussions for the rest of the play and the rest of their lives.
"It’s really about you know the middle-class obsession with causes, being seen to be doing good is seen, often, to be more important than actually doing good. How people use causes as sort of a badge of honour. So it’s a pretty mean play. All of the characters are really awful and there’s not much salvation. It’s very dark and brutal and some very wrong things happen, but I’m very surprised, but very pleased that MTC decided to program it."