The Durrells are one of those famed British families, like the Mitfords, who capture the imaginations of so many people through fictionalisations, dramatisations, and their own personal autobiographies about their unusual, unbelievable, adventurous lives. This new stage adaptation by Janys Chambers of Gerald Durrell’s autobiographic writing recreates the chaos and humour of 1930s Corfu for familiar and unfamiliar audiences alike.
While Lawrence Durrell was arguable the famous writer of the family, the youngest naturalist also wrote a series of books from which were adapted this script and the popular British television show the Durrells which ran from 2016 – 2019. Set across a number of years, Chambers’s script includes the Durrell’s first move to Corfu from England, their many moves and relationships and adventures on the island, as well as their eventual return to England. The whole family of Durrells including Louisa (Cindy de Wet), Margo (Deanne Ruseska), Larry (Gordon Carroll), Leslie (Joash Stuivenberg), and Gerry (Dominique Nesbitt) forge a rambling, rambunctious path through the Greek countryside with help from their driver Spiro (Theo Hatzistergos), their cook Lugaretzia (Cris Bocchi), and an ever loyal pup named Roger (Jordan McCabe). As co-directors Elizabeth Munro and Mark G Nagle reflect in their directors’ note, the structure of the script is much like a collected series of postcards with Gerry narrating his family’s time in Greece through unusual experiences, new friendships, visitors, and many, many encounters with animals and, similarly exoticised, locals.
The set design by Mitchell Latham was large and expansive, extending to incorporate the sides of the stage in order to fully capture the freeing atmosphere of Corfu. With vines and trees stretching into the audience, the set represented Gerry’s perspective on the wide expanse of nature to explore, while also using a backdrop of white lace to create a sense of airy movement on stage, evoking the refreshing ocean breeze of the Mediterranean. The costuming set the action firmly in the interwar period while puppetry and many props by Nicola Fox and Ella Monti brought the wildlife of Gerry’s childhood to life from a realistic dog sidekick to snakes to a pair of menacing and mischievous magpies (Bocchi and Susan Dachateau). Co-directors Munro and Nagle faced an ambitious task of staging an adaptation chock full of scene locations, non-human characters, human characters, and chaotic action but their choice to pare back the staging to its largest capacity with semi-visible off-stage areas and scene changes only amplified the imaginative quality of Gerry’s narration and the unbelievable antics his family got up to.
The ensemble cast were vibrant, bringing immense energy to even minor characters such as the customs officer (Cynthia Ning), hotel manager (Brigitte Claire Everett), and a pair of surprisingly humorous movers (Liam O’Carroll and Andrew Cougle). The Durrells were also humorously constructed with a sharp, familial dynamic between all the siblings that lead to misunderstandings and outbursts before they all eventually, comfortingly reconciled. Nesbitt’s Gerry was inquisitive and endearing with a boldness that led him both into trouble and discovery. Stuivenberg and Ruseska were notable for their commitment to their characters as fully-fledged and often times annoying teenagers while de Wet’s Louisa had an interesting balance between strict and free-wheeling that was perhaps largely responsible for the chaos around her home. While My Family and Other Animals was tuned to be a comedy, something about the timing of the performances, a certain stiffness in delivery or an overly serious approach to the material, meant many of the jokes fell flat, causing the fast-paced scenes to stretch and lag. Nesbitt’s narration seemed unbothered but this miscalculation robbed a lot of the scenes of their warmth.
Additionally, there was a definite contrast between the upright Durrells and the emphatic and emotional Greeks including Hatzistergos’s Spiro with his often overly enthusiastic help or Tarkan (Javad Ziaolhagh) with a particularly forward and confident approach to wooing Margo. Other elements of exoticisation and othering between the British and the foreigners included a handful of characters who entered, often silently, to awe Gerry with unusual treasures or mystical powers of dance or song. These representations of otherness illuminated My Family and Other Animals as an artefact deeply steeped in the imperialism of the British Empire and the particular brand of exoticism and adventure that writers like the Durrells marketed to eager readers. Especially in comparison to another British classic performed at the Genesian in 2021, A Passage to India, these texts so beloved and indebted to a characterisation of British imperialism as quirky, curious, and innocent are perhaps in need of revisiting with a more critical, or at least pragmatic, view of encounters between empire and “other”.
Gerry’s memories of his childhood in Corfu capture the zany freedom and excitement so many imagine in a life away from their banal humdrum. What would strengthen the sentiment would be more complex attention paid to the site of the Durrells’ adventures of self-discovery: the people and places that have existed and continue to exist around their narrative as equally interesting and valuable stories in their own right. With a slight shift in perspective, the Durrells and their stories could continue to delight audiences for another century to come.
My Family and Other Animals is running at the Genesian Theatre from September 17th – October 22nd
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