They Shoot Horses…


mac, Birmingham, Friday 22nd March, 2013


Untied Artists bring their straight-talking, matter-of-fact two-hander to Birmingham.  On paper it looks like it might be a bit of a tough watch and a bit polemical, but on stage it’s an engaging and provocative piece.

It tells the story of Scott, a new recruit at the abattoir (sent there by the jobcentre because he wanted to work with animals) and how he learns the trade from experienced knackerman Tom.  We follow Scott’s progress and also the growing friendship between the two men.

Their naturalistic (and funny) scenes are broken up with snippets of narration.  The actors crouch behind tiny buildings that are lit from within.  In a sentence they reveal the story of each building, and every story is related to death in some way.  As well as these, we hear pre-recorded voices, first-hand experience from people in real life –this documentary touch gives the play an authenticity, buoying the naturalistic approach.

Dominating the space is the recumbent figure of a horse – a marvellous life-sized puppet that is hoiked up on pulleys and shot in the head.  It is strung up to be drained of blood before being dismembered and skinned.  The puppet is articulated to suggest horse movements economically (it takes three to operate the one in War Horse!).  When it is taken to pieces, I flinched not just from what this represents but also at the deconstruction of such a beautiful piece of art!

It is a play about managing death.  The knackermen are ordinary blokes, not bloodthirsty monsters.  They are the professionals and know the most humane ways to despatch an ill or lame animal better than the precious owners.  Respect the animal, find the right moment, says Tom before chasing after a rat to twat it with a shovel – it’s a funny moment but highlights one of the main points: how our attitudes to death differ depending on whose or what’s life is at stake.  Tom forks out eight hundred quid in vet’s bills after his dog is run over (“He’s a member of the family”), but later is quick to shoot that very dog when it takes to worrying sheep.

It’s all leading up to the spiky topic of assisted suicide but presented in a quiet, personal way: Tom has inherited a terminal brain disease from his father and begins to falter. Rather than dwindle into indignity Tom approaches Scott, now fully trained, to help him out.  This is not sensationalised – nothing in the piece is sensationalised – or melodramatic.  It is plain-speaking, matter-of-fact and honest and all the more effective because of this.

As Tom, Jake Oldershaw is humorous and warm, an ordinary bloke.  You can’t help liking him just as Jack Trow’s Scott gets to know and like him.  Both give seemingly effortless performances.  Arzhang Pezhman‘s script is informative without being didactic, with true-to-life dialogue that matches the factual input from the recorded voices.   Steve Johnson’s direction balances the naturalistic with the stylised.  It never feels like we are lurching from one to the other. The switching off of the lights in the little houses is a neat idea, really brought home when Tom, on the eve of his final day, plunges us into blackout.

For me though it’s the horse and the way it’s handled that will be my most abiding memory of the show.  Even the space it leaves is evocative.  Crafted by Harry Trow, it is the bridge between the naturalistic and stylised elements of the production and the symbol that epitomises the main theme.

If we can manage the death of other living things as humanely as we do for some animals, why not with people too?  In Tom’s case we feel it’s the right thing but because the play finishes before the event, it opens up the debate.

A thoroughly engaging and more entertaining hour than you might expect, For Their Own Good deserves to be seen by much larger audiences, for their own good.




About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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