“They Fell Queasy – But They Love It”:The Pitchfork Disney at Shoreditch Town Hall

George Blagden as Presley Stray in Philip Ridley's The Pitchfork Disney at Shoreditch Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Matt Humphrey.
George Blagden as Presley Stray in Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney at Shoreditch Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Matt Humphrey.

Viewed in retrospect, Philip Ridley’s first play seems like a manifesto for his trademark brand of theatrical horror; an early, self-aware classic of in-yer-face theatre. “They fell queasy – but they love it,” pronounces Cosmo Disney (Tom Rhys Harries). “That’s why they pay. And the queasier it gets the more they pay.” The Pitchfork Disney is a play in which live cockroaches are eaten, snakes are fried, and penises scrape along the tarmac. What does it say about us if we still clamour for theatre tickets?

The trouble with any revival of The Pitchfork Disney is that nowadays we’re harder to shock – one can expect to see on-stage rape even at the Royal Opera House. Since the play’s 1991 debut, playwrights have leapt at Cosmo’s advice that queasiness sells. Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman followed Ridley in bringing a new flavour of brutality to theatre. Audiences now seem largely desensitised to The Pitchfork Disney’s more extreme aspects – scanning faces during the most stomach-turning of Ridley’s monologues, I didn’t catch a single look of disgust.

A successful revival can’t rely on the play’s more sensationalist aspects alone, and instead should plumb the deaths of Ridley’s strange, heightened poetry to tease out the play’s subtleties. As well as a meta-theatrical examination of our desire to be scared, the play also explores how nihilism acts as a comfort blanket for Presley and Hayley Stray, two “ancient children” locked up in their apartment and fantasising about their neighbourhood’s destruction in a nuclear holocaust. “So many things can burn us up through no fault of our own,” worries Haley. “There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.” The twins’ isolated existence is threatened by the arrival of Cosmo Disney and the Pitchfork Cavalier, two ghastly pub entertainers who have found a market in human fear.

The best moments in Jamie Lloyd’s production came when simple storytelling dominated. When Presley (George Balgden) describes for Cosmo his imagined post-apocalyptic landscape and bizarre recurring nightmare, Ridley’s twisted poetry had us spellbound. Cosmo listens with rapt, euphoric attention: does he see the Strays’ passive embrace of meaninglessness as the flipside of his amoral ethics of self-advancement, or recognise in Presley another performer capable of accessing the darker regions of the psyche? The entrance of the Pitchfork Cavalier (Sen Shote) and increased energy on Cosmo’s part brought a carnivalesque atmosphere – the scares packaged as a campy consumer product. It was a cross between end-of-the-pier entertainment and horror B-movie: as Cosmo would say, like riding “the ghost train.”

Other aspects of Lloyd’s interpretation showed less sensitivity to Ridley’s text. The play is suffused with dangerous sexual undercurrents which in Lloyd’s hands hit the audience with the subtlety of a sledgehammer – what Ridley meant symbolically Lloyd insists on taking literally. Though The Pitchfork Disney has met with a much kinder critical reception than Lloyd’s controversial reworking of Doctor Faustus last summer, both pieces share an occasional lack of nuance, forfeited in favour of relentless pacing and engaging physicality. Lloyd’s starry cast also occasionally delivered overcooked performances. Hayley Squires, nominated for a BAFTA for her role in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, seemed to play Hayley as raving mad – a somewhat one-dimensional take on Ridley’s drug-addled sleeping beauty.

George Blagden, better known for playing the dashing Louis XIV in the BBC’s sexed-up Versailles, seems oddly cast as Presley. His often understated performance seemed out of place alongside the more intense delivery of Squires and Rhys Harries. There was a general tension between Lloyd’s motions towards realism and the resistance put up by Ridley’s pointedly strange plot, dialogue and characters. Occasionally naturalism triumphed: we couldn’t be sure if the sounds we heard were part of the play or noises from the street above; the Strays could momentarily pass for real East Londoners. When the illusion was shattered by some odd phrasing on Ridley’s part or the increasingly strange action as the play reached its climax, it was hard to tell whether the jarring effect was what Lloyd had intended.

Outshining his better-known co-stars, Rhys Harries’ Cosmo acted as an injection of energy and tension. His jittery volatility, sleazy charisma and boyish good-looks made him just the kind of demonically enticing figure you imagine when reading the play. More than this, Rhys Harries humanised Cosmo. When he was visibly moved by Presley’s storytelling or experiencing what seemed like a gentle communion with Hayley it felt like we had peered past the showy exterior, only for Cosmo to wrong-foot us again and show the humanity we’d allowed him was misplaced.

Lloyd’s Pitchfork Disney is high on drama and tension, yet nothing new is teased out of the text or re-evaluated in a modern context. The theme of “ancient children”, for instance, could easily have fed into the ever-present thought-pieces on millennials self-entitlement. The press would have it that my generation are all a little like the Strays, terrified of the world and clinging to over-indulgent parents, and it would be fascinating to see Lloyd respond to this. Yet overall, this was a handsome take on Ridley’s seminal play, boding well for the premier of Killer, Ridley’s new anthology of monologues which is also directed by Lloyd at Shoreditch Town Hall and starts its run after The Pitchfork Disney closes.

The Pitchfork Disney continues at Shoreditch Town Hall until March 18. Tickets are available from £12.


Boldness on a Budget: Karagula at The Styx

Obi Alibi, Emily Burnett and Lynette Clarke star in Philip Ridley's Karagula at The Styx in Tottenham Hale. Photo courtesy of Lara Genovese at Naiad Photography.
Obi Alibi, Emily Burnett and Lynette Clarke star in Philip Ridley’s Karagula at The Styx in Tottenham Hale. Photo courtesy of Lara Genovese at Naiad Photography.

Should we re-think our criticism when it comes to fringe theatre?

It is justifiable to say that PIGDOG’s production of Karagula, the new play by enfant terrible Philip Ridley, is chaotic, unpolished and confusing. Yet is that the most valuable observation to make?

The play comes with all the trappings of the modern immersive theatrical experience. Ticket-holders are asked to come to a secret location, revealed to be The Styx, a bar two minutes’ walk from Tottenham Hale station. The theatre company, PIDDOG, are billed as “form-bending”. Arguably, the glossy sheen that we demand from theatre produced in the nations’ capital may need to be traded for less polished, more ambitious theatre if we are going to allow for creative growth and exploration.

The bravery of even staging Karagula should be recognised. Audiences and critics should reposition themselves and how they give value to theatre when watching a production like this. Because, despite all its flaws (of which there are many), this piece of theatre does achieve some fundamentally brilliant things and they should not be ignored.

We can call this the silver lining. Which means, of course, that we must first acknowledge the looming, eruptive grey cloud.

The cloud is this. While, on the surface, Ridley and PIDGOG might seem the perfect fit – both gritty provocateurs who love to twist narratives – Karagula in fact marks Ridley’s weakest narrative offering to date – a swirl of colours that rinse off with ease.

The play begins with the sugary-sweet relationship of two high school sweethearts, Dean and Libby. They exist in a world plastered in pink, like a heightened version of 1950s America. Their society is called Mareka and it can be summarised by the flurry of milkshakes, cardigans and kitsch jargon that populate that stage.

Dean is about to be made Prom King: a title that guarantees his untimely end. In Mareka, a regular ritual takes place where the Prom King is shot during the crowning parade. The assassin is then hunted down by an angry mob of townsfolk who subsequently trade their stories as glorious heroic achievements. There is even a prom museum where tokens of the annual slaughter are held.

Existing somewhere alongside Mareka, is COTNA, where people are referred to as numbers and are dressed head to toe in white. Though there is a steady undercurrent of violence that populates Mareka, COTNA appears as the more openly oppressive and mechanical.  This world comes under threat when twins who can communicate telepathically are brought into the muted realm and have the potential to undo its structure.  

Yes, Karagula is indigestible.

Philip Ridley’s script is like a tangled web of weeds, which in its current state only hosts a few blooming flowers.  The script is in serious need of a dramaturg to strip back some of the ideas and impose a clear dramatic structure.  The production feels as though someone had compressed an already bloated five-book series into a three-hour-long production.

Given that the universe Ridley has created is so unique, it’s then quite troubling that many of the scenes feel repetitive, displaying little care for storytelling. The audience are asked to go on a wild journey into an undiscovered realm and then are quickly robbed of a map. Navigating this lost universe is a task that one can quickly grow bored with.

So what’s the silver lining?

There is something in what PIGDOG and Soho Theatre attempted to achieve which is truly exciting. Not frightened by Ridley’s expansive script, which includes a mammoth 70 characters, the creative team decided to put on this play on a small budget and in a north London area that, culturally, has been relatively poorly served. For anyone seeking a more theatrical production on the fringe (which is growing rarer and rarer), there may be something in this play for you.

A huge success of Karagula is the casting. The diverse, dedicated actors should be applauded for their diligent performances in a production that is obviously too daring to be truly carried off at this stage. Aside from this, the quality of the performances are very high. Lanre Malaolu, Theo Solomon and Obi Abili in particular displayed absolute commitment. In the clearer, more dramatically satisfying scenes, the pulse of humanity was strong and created enough of a flicker that audiences were able to stay tapped into the production. The cast is diverse in age and race and it feels as though the eclectic company really bands together, which is a joy to watch. In addition, Max Barton, PIGDOG’s director, has a very competent skill in bringing drama to the surface against unfamiliar backdrops.

Shaun Soh’s costume designs are beautiful, and it feels as though there is a nod to The Fifth Element, with Soh conjuring a Jean Paul Gaultier-esc aesthetic. If Soh had been awarded a Hollywood-style budget, his designs could compete with some of the most creative textile minds. Sadly, at present the lack of cash really makes the final product’s lack of finish unavoidable.

At the heart of this production are some very talented creative people who are not afraid of exploring. The production brims with curiosity and life and is potentially one of the least predictable plays stages in years. Karagula is a bold effort with a strong current of imagination and ambition – but this is undermined by its lack of focus, clarity of vision and the budget to truly pull it of. Regardless of all the fraying edges and loose threads that plague the garments and the entire production, I hope that companies like this keep taking these sorts of risks. Otherwise we are at risk of existing within boundaries that are too safe and set. We should be looking at more fluid ways of bringing theatre to new spaces, new audiences and filling it with new faces.

Karagula continues at The Styx until Sat July 9. Tickets are available through the Soho Theatre.

Literary Parenthood: Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre

Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan in Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre.
Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan in Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre.

Who’d be a parent? Perhaps the age-old question should be “Who’d be a literary parent?” Certainly, a trawl through the annals of literature throws up any number of characters the world might have been better off without – many of them with a complicated relationship to their mothers and fathers. From Oedipus and Electra to contemporary plays like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living (which recently opened in the National’s Dorfman Theatre), writers have long mined the fraught arena of familial relations for drama, and often at the centre we’ll find a mother and father trying to understand and support their offspring.

Another playwright who keeps returning to the concept of parents and children is Philip Ridley, whose scintillating and regularly challenging plays are often built on the foundation of family. He has moved from the vanished parents serving as a backdrop and possible explanation for the action in The Pitchfork Disney, through the brothers returning to their dead mother’s house in Piranha Heights, and has now come to rest on a play that revolves around a young mum and dad and their desire to create a better life for themselves and “for Baby”: the darkly hilarious Radiant Vermin, currently on at the Soho Theatre.

Choosing an alternative route to that of many children’s authors (of which Ridley can be counted too), rather than rendering parents deceased or absent, Ridley this time presents us with a female protagonist who is pregnant throughout the majority of the action and couples her with an anxious yet devoted father-to-be. As the consistently likeable (which should perhaps be more of a stretch considering some of their behaviour during the play!) central couple Ollie and Jill, Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey paint a strong picture of two young people whose bond has been cemented by the imminent arrival of their offspring. While Radiant Vermin operates very successfully as a damning commentary on the housing market and the economy in general, the focus on family and the lengths we will go to in order to secure a safe and happy future for our relatives is far from secondary. We are never allowed to forget that Ollie and Jill have convinced themselves that they are acting selflessly and in the best interests of Baby, whether it’s Jill shying away from some of the more violent acts described by her husband as she is worried about the effect it will have on her child, or both characters pondering how they will manage to keep up the necessary “renovations” when they have an extra mouth to feed. It’s impossible to discuss the play without ruining a key plot point so please look away now if you’re spoiler-squeamish. Early on in Radiant Vermin, Ollie and Jill enter into a Faustian pact in the form of a housing contract with Miss Dee, played with lip-smacking glee and sly glances to the audience by Amanda Daniels. They will be given a dream home without the need for a mortgage or administration fees, but they will have to decorate it themselves. As it transpires, the most effective way to do so is to murder an exponentially increasing number of the homeless, without their neighbours noticing.

This deliciously nasty premise allows Ridley to point a critical finger at mortgage brokers and a society that leaves those most in need of housing without it. Our sympathy is entirely with this young family, and we are even asked at one point if we agree with the path Ollie and Jill have embarked upon. By depicting two people who are very easy to side with – much of the humour of the piece arises from their navigation of everyday married life and their respective approaches to looking after their home – Ridley perhaps sets himself, and the audience, less of a challenge than he has been known to do in the past. My mind went back to his earlier drama The Fastest Clock in the Universe: while we do come to feel a great deal of sympathy for Sherbet Gravel (like Jill, visibly pregnant) and Foxtrot Darling, the young parents at the heart of this wickedly tragic play, at first they seem hopelessly naïve (Foxtrot) and annoyingly abrasive and oblivious (Sherbet). It’s only once we have learned more about the life they want for themselves and their baby (ringing any bells?) that we truly feel the horrible impact of what happens at the conclusion of the piece. Personally I’ve seen few things more chilling on stage than Sherbet Gravel’s joyous boasts about “the future one” turning into a plaintive whimper as her dreams collapse around her.

Ridley shows us, as many playwrights have before him, that the trials of parenthood are guaranteed to put us through the emotional wringer. While the National Theatre’s production of Medea last year may have been a little uneven in quality, I doubt many would deny the power of Helen McCrory’s titular performance, very clearly going through psychological hell as a murderous mother. Arthur Miller, whose realist plays about the family are a cornerstone of American literature, returned time and again to parents and children: Willy and Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman are arguably the best-known and most affecting example, but the Kellers in All My Sons and the Carbones in A View from the Bridge can have just as shattering and profound an impact on audiences in the right hands, as the Young Vic revival of the latter play starring the immensely talented Mark Strong and Nicola Walker has proven. The riveting tale of Martha and George in Edward Albee’s brilliant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also hinges on a child – their son, who may be dead or alive or just about anything in between. Their arguments and cruel games are given weight by the often-unspoken emotional burden of having been, or perhaps being, parents.

It sometimes seems as if becoming a parent is an inevitable road to misery, if literature is anything to go by. Thankfully there’s a not-insignificant list of happy parents to contradict that notion – Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (regularly adapted for the stage), Caractacus Potts in the beloved musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even non-human characters like Mufasa in The Lion King spring to mind. And although Ollie and Jill have to go through some unpleasant events to get there, it seems at the end of Radiant Vermin that they are pleased to have had their baby. It’s a surprisingly upbeat conclusion for the notoriously hard-hitting Ridley, and combined with the incredible performances from the Soho Theatre cast (particularly in the penultimate segment, in which Whelan and Verey take on the mammoth task of switching between characters at their son’s birthday party at a hurtling rate) it makes for Ridley’s most purely entertaining and funny show to date. But it’s anyone’s guess what peculiar offspring he’ll conjure up next.

Radiant Vermin continues at the Soho Theatre until April 12.

Welcome to the Abattoir: The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Dylan Llewellyn, Nancy Sullivan and Joshua Blake in Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo © Darren Bell, 2013.

For proof of theatre’s power to shock and appal, you don’t need to look much further than Philip Ridley’s seminal (and multi-award winning) play The Fastest Clock in the Universe. Set in one dingy, claustrophobia-inducing room above an old fur factory and with the entirety of the action restricted to one tense day in the life of its characters, the prospect is enough to make your skin crawl – but also to make you sit forward in your seat and pay attention. And that’s before we’ve encountered the man at the centre of it all: Cougar Glass, a Dorian Gray for our times with an unhealthy obsession with his appearance and a brutal disregard for the feelings of others. But Cougar is a more intricately depicted personality than you might think, and anyway – it’s his birthday, so you’d better be nice.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe may not be a pleasant experience, particularly as it draws nearer to its inevitably explosive conclusion and the unravelling of Cougar’s precariously poised existence gathers pace. But Ridley skilfully draws us into Cougar’s world through the inclusion of Captain Tock, as dishevelled as the flat he has filled with faded portraits of birds and antiques from the shop he presumably used to run and perhaps still does (it’s never made entirely clear). He’s the older, balding man who enables Cougar to survive despite his lifestyle being utterly unsuited to his surroundings – and whose love of winged beasts is matched by the torch he carries desperately for his flatmate. In a dramatic sense, Captain Tock provides balance and reason in the face of Cougar’s decadence and self-absorption: while Cougar loves only himself, Tock is filled with doubt and self-loathing, poignantly revealed during the second act when he finally meets someone who sees through the superficial veil of Cougar Glass.

There’s a strong sense that the first three characters we meet – Cougar, Tock and their elderly landlady Cheetah Bee – are all trapped by their respective self-worth. Cheetah is the one Tock turns to when Cougar has one of his seemingly regular fits of panic and anger at the prospect of being reminded of his true age, and it’s her job to calm him by reminding him that his life is the opposite of hers: “I am at the end, and you are at the beginning,” she emphasises. Actress Ania Marson evokes a contemporary Miss Haversham, in the fur coat that is a hangover from her days as the wife of the factory’s owner. And she has her own grisly tale to tell about the very real cost of beauty. In fact, Ridley’s play is saturated by cultural references to classical tales – it’s there in the names, with Cougar serving as a grotesque twist on Peter Pan and luring in the naive schoolboy Foxtrot Darling (a surname that will surely sound familiar to any J.M. Barrie fans), under the watchful and wary eye of Captain Tock – or should that be Hook? Couple that with the animalistic connotations of Cougar, Cheetah and Fox(trot) and you have a truly savage take on the brutality and cruelty of modern man.

Where Peter Pan taught us that it is possible to stay eternally youthful, Ridley is determined to have Cougar’s plan to be perpetually nineteen crumble around his ears. It doesn’t take much for Cougar’s plot to win over vulnerable, recently bereaved Foxtrot to be ruined. What it takes is Sherbet Gravel. From the moment an effervescent Nancy Sullivan appears (just before the interval), you can tell she spells trouble for our selfish antihero. With a voice as grating and sickly as her name, Sherbet stomps all over Cougar’s lifestyle, and ultimately proves herself to be the ultimate moral voice of truth in Cougar’s world of deceit and decay. Relentlessly forward-thinking, and with a Mary Poppins-esque handbag full of surprises, Sherbet brings life and unstoppable energy into a flat full of dead birds and stifling routine. Sullivan gleefully storms around the stage, clearly relishing a role that has the audience in gales of laughter. Everyone else raises their game accordingly, and the second act is an exhilarating, gut-wrenching experience as a result. Sullivan is definitely one to watch – but, in a cast with no weak links in sight, she’s not the only one. Joshua Blake convinces utterly as the predatory Cougar, giving an intensely menacing performance buoyed by a muscular vigour and intelligence. Ian Houghton subtly gains our sympathy as the most likeable character of the piece, the tragic and forlorn Captain Tock. And Dylan Llewellyn perfectly skewers the mix of bravado and innocence that make up Foxtrot Darling, who discovers too late that his “new friend” is anything but.

All in all, The Fastest Clock in the Universe makes for a surprisingly enjoyable two hours of theatre. This kind of play is not usually my province – but Ridley, and the hard-working cast and crew of this production at the Old Red Lion in Islington, skilfully keep things interesting and certainly shake you up in the process. “Welcome to the abattoir,” says Captain Tock – but this is one show that finds a great deal of life in some horribly grim material.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November. See the theatre website for more information, which includes details of post-show events – including Q&As and poetry readings by Philip Ridley himself and a night of five new short monologues on Saturday November 23.