Tag Archives: Philip Ridley

“The Poltergeist” from the Southwark Playhouse

Tramp Productions continue to thrill fans of Philip Ridley during lockdown. While it’s hoped that the playwright’s cancelled show, The Beast of Blue Yonder, goes ahead one day, The Beast Will Rise web series was fantastic. Now another new monologue has been filmed for an exciting live stream.

The recording benefits from its location, albeit sadly empty, because of the extra space. In an excellent performance, energetically directed by Wiebke Green, Joseph Potter makes his character appropriately expansive. The extra room, after so much filming from homes, suits the energy of this latest creation from Ridley – an artist called Sasha.

The action centres on Sasha at his niece’s birthday party, an event he describes as a “new circle of hell”. But this is hardly the apocalyptic setting for otherworldly events Ridley often specialises in. East London is described with the playwright’s usual skill, detail and beauty. But it’s mundane Ilford that low-key events occur in. Don’t worry though, there’s nothing tame about this play’s spirit.

It’s a marvel to see how Ridley fleshes out characters who never appear; The Poltergeist becomes a family drama despite being a monologue. For Sasha, his family looks like a pretty Monet painting but is really a Damien Hirst installation. Yet it becomes clear a despised sister-in-law is just trying hard to be nice. And niece Robin is a kindred spirit whose “beautiful and scary” artwork could well summarise the feel of the whole play.

“beautiful and scary”

The Poltergeist isn’t scary because of the supernatural but since Sasha is so damaged. Potter conveys the character’s pain wonderfully, with anxiety keeping the audience on edge. Alongside an addiction to painkillers, Sasha’s grip on reality is blurred by his powerful imagination and his paranoia. So much life seems like a film set to him. A brief brush with fame and personal grief have caused profound damage.

Ridley challenges us to retain the sympathy Sasha deserves. It’s a challenge Potter’s performance doesn’t shy away from. Irascible, “sneering at everyone” and potentially violent, it’s easy to see this prodigy as spoilt and literally destructive. But Sasha still wins hearts, how?

A strong romance allows light into the play and a touch of stability in Sasha’s life. The relationship with his partner Chet is a constant presence. This being Ridley, the affair is sharp with sometimes painful truths. But the love is sincere and supportive.  Vividly rendered in Potter’s asides, Chet calls Sasha a “force of nature” – it’s hard to disagree. The outcome is a touch more hope than many of Ridley’s plays offer. Another surprising move from this master playwright, and a welcome one.

Until 21 November 2020

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

“The Beast Will Rise” from Tramp Productions

While the cancellation of Philip Ridley’s The Beast of Blue Yonder is regrettable, this series of monologues – released weekly – features the cast due to perform his play and is admirable compensation.

Directed by Wiebke Green, the online project shows the breadth of Ridley’s imagination and his inimitable style. Full of vivid images and memorable phrases, the stories and sense of humour are unmistakable. 

Fantastic beasts and

Animals, and the animalistic in us, are joined with apocalyptic scenarios and touches of fairy tales in this collection.  There’s a sense of nature, including human nature, as dangerous but also magical.

Take Telescope (with beasts are in the stars and wildlife on the local common), a piece that Unique Spencer does so well with performing. Alongside a gruesome murder, Ridley gives us a brilliant take on agoraphobia.

There’s a telescope too in Night, a short piece with Tyler Conti playing a young man who is dying, that proves haunting without any touch of the supernatural. 

Dismemberment and exploitation, horror and fantasy are all combined. And there are laughs too, including a twisted childhood prank in Chihuahua that is downright bizarre. Another strong example (with Grace Hogg-Robinson’s excellent performance) is Zarabooshka; a “shrivel-free” character’s imagination consoles and disturbs by turns. 

Finding great storytelling

From poetic snippets like Snow and River to longer pieces with “terrible things” in a world gone mad, the stories destabilise expectations as well as entertain. 

Flights into fantasy can switch off an audience. Credit to Green and many of her cast for holding fast to the writing and making the pieces so engaging: Rachel Bright in Gators, Mirren Mack in Wound and Steve Furst in Performance with the same aim – gripping an audience and not letting go.

Standing out, not just because of its longer duration, Eclipse serves as a brilliant showcase for Mike Evans. A self-conscious exercise in storytelling, it’s a macabre tale with wonderful characters. Society has broken down – again – and “old world problems” come alongside cups of tea and creepy cravats. The twisted parallel with the Coronavirus (it’s the young who are infected here) shows Ridley’s wicked streak and creates tension.

The fecundity of Ridley’s creativity is remarkable but it is a matter of quality as well as quantity. Alongside post offices and jacket potatoes, Ridley combines strong observation, a powerful sense of community (albeit frequently a mob) and recognisable geography to ground his brand of incredible. 

It’s a pet theory of mine that Ridley is the playwright of his generation who will be looked at in the future. That this collection, made under far from ideal conditions, is so consistently strong makes The Beast Will Rise a major achievement.

Posted online from 2 April 2020

www.wearetramp.com

“Vincent River” at the Park Theatre

This welcome revival of Philip Ridley’s play from the year 2000 benefits from the sound direction of Robert Chevara. Confident with the superb storytelling, Chevara gives the text space, expertly judging time for vivid images to linger. Elements of a mystery story in this tale of an encounter between a bereaved mother and an enigmatic stranger add a more conventional element to the piece than is common with Ridley, and, again, Chevara makes the most of this – the plot is gripping. But Ridley’s dark imaginings are present, too, with the account of a vicious hate crime and the grief at its aftermath portrayed with startling originality.

Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahy take the roles of Anita and Davey, connected by the murder of Vincent. As the frequently angry mourning mother, Jameson is superb, conveying a moving, mounting pain as the play progresses. She’s initially suspicious of Davey’s motives for seeking her out, and the tension between the two is riveting. In this enigmatic role, Mahy seems a little trapped by his accent and doesn’t fully explore the dangerous eroticism of the character – Ridley’s suggestions of precocious sexuality are disturbing – yet the performance is full of nervous energy and always exciting, especially with the expert unravelling of his secrets.

Thomas Mahy
Thomas Mahy

The ideas about bodies, families, and memory – each so poetically conveyed – make Ridley’s writing the star of the show. An obsession with geography, with descriptions of places and their history, creates a visceral sense of East London and community. Toxic relationships battle with affection and romance throughout. Ridley’s descriptions of desire and the body, with such a tangible sense of fragility arising from the violence and illness in the play, are brilliant. Recounting trauma is common enough in theatre, but the stories Ridley’s protagonists tell each other have a therapeutic quality of intense emotion. A “mosaic of hands” in an artwork described by Davey might be a metaphor for how Ridley works. The result is a play of peculiar power.

Until 14 April 2018

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photos by David Monteith Hodge

“Angry” at Southwark Playhouse

Courtesy of the estimable playwright Philip Ridley, these six monologues make for an inimitable night of theatre. There may well be a theme to Angry – it isn’t rage as such, since the emotions we watch and experience are legion, but what really unites each scene is startling writing and superb acting.

The monologues range in subject matter and the characters are diverse. At first, the audience is harangued and confronted by inexplicable fury. Next there’s an upbeat self-motivation speech. The language is poetic, with an ear for contemporary slogans. Both scenes urge us to “participation” – demanding responses from us with disconcerting direct addresses. But it’s Ridley’s magical imagination and skill at story telling that draws us in, taking us next into a dystopian future of bombs, riots… and severed heads on a dancefloor. From a first sexual encounter, to the memories of a character about to die – all human life is here. The imagery is vivid, the humour pitch black and the emotions visceral.

Bringing such accomplished scripts to the stage, director Max Lindsay creates an intense atmosphere from the moment an audience enters. The two actors pace around a shallow pit of a stage – the only time they are together – ready for confrontation. Lindsay has given the text the close study it deserves: every line is considered and, as a result, the performances are flawless. From near constant shouting (let’s not forget how technically difficult that is), there’s masterful comedy and emotions turning on a word. And knowing that both actors, Georgie Henley and Tyrone Huntley, learn it all and then alternate in performance, is quite simply breath-taking. It’s hard to praise this show enough.

Until 10 March 2018

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

“Dark Vanilla Jungle” at Theatre N16

Here’s a chance to see a great play by one of the finest writers around. Philip Ridley’s nightmarish nativity tale is an 80-minute monologue of consummate storytelling that’s not for the faint hearted. Second Sons Theatre Company’s production can be viewed as a summons to explore the darkest of subject matter – you have been warned.

As with another of Ridley’s short plays, Tonight With Donny Stixx, this is an intimate encounter with a disturbed, taboo-breaking youngster. As an examination into sexism, too, given Ridley’s ripe imagination, the result is one of toxic potency. It’s a huge role for Emily Thornton as Angela. A troubled childhood as “an invisible” abandoned by parents, a horrific, sexually abusive relationship, then a fantastical – and repulsive – breakdown and a crime are all mixed together. Thornton conveys her character’s unbalanced naivety well, her make-believing even better, and has a go with the themes of “camouflage” that excite Ridley. If there’s a shortcoming, some of the wicked humour is missed, but this is a performance to be proud of.

Samson Hawkins’ direction is unflinching, the staging bravely minimal. Andrea’s confused ideas about gender roles, including a flirtation with the language of fundamentalism, voice fears that many leave unspoken. It can’t be stressed enough that this is queasy stuff. But a play this audaciously florid, with a production that does it justice, is a challenge to an audience that should be accepted.

Until 31 March 2017

www.theatren16.co.uk

Photo copyright Second Sons

“Killer” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Here’s a combination to die for: a favourite writer, Philip Ridley, with one of the most exciting directors around, Jamie Lloyd. It’s a team that makes sense, full of irreverence and a keen intelligence. I’m guessing Lloyd is a long-term fan, excited by the chance to direct a revival of Ridley’s first hit, The Pitchfork Disney, alongside this latest piece. Killer is a short work, with a touch more whimsy than we might expect, but Ridley’s brilliant lyricism and imagination are in full flow. Using clever ‘binaural’ headphones, worn by the audience throughout, adds an immersive angle that should increase the show’s appeal even further.

The piece is a trilogy of tales of the unexpected; the theme of killing is loosely applied – metamorphosis just as much a focus, with people changing both consciously and miraculously. From gangland initiations, mass murderers and a man on the run from a psychopath, it’s Ridley’s inimitable humour that excites. The way he plays with genres shows a skill that many aspire to. Making the most basic stuff of fiction original again, the insane sounds sensible and nightmares funny. The voices we hear in all three monologues are from John MacMillan. We only get to see him twice, crouched over as we enter the first basement space, and a glimpse of him as a desperate man in the finale, but the voices he creates in our head complement the vivid imagery of the text. Technology aside, Macmillan’s performance is astonishing.

With a script this strong and this well delivered you might question the need for the headphones and a damp basement location that smells a bit. Yet the technology works well and is well used, with admirable restraint. Combined with pitch-black darkness and spooky lighting (Azusa Ono), there are genuinely scary moments – it’s good to have someone to hold hands with. Even odder is half hearing, over your headphones, a room full of people laughing like drains at some very funny lines as our author applies the admirable art of allusive alliteration. Ridley’s writing is strong enough to immerse us all by itself.

Until 8 April 2017

www.shoreditchtownhall.com

Photo by Matt Humphrey

“Tonight with Donny Stixx” at the Bunker Theatre

Eighty minutes is a long time for a monologue. Holding an audience and taking them on a journey for such a span is an awe-inspiring feat. And with a storyteller like Philip Ridley, accompanied by a faultless performance from Sean Michael Verey and aided by director David Mercatali, this twisted tale is one not to miss.

Donny Stixx is a teenage magician. No secret is made of the fact that he is unstable and it’s soon clear he has committed an atrocious crime. But we’re told to expect the unexpected and Ridley’s imagination prevents any predictability. Cleverly, Donny isn’t an unsympathetic character. There’s the hope the boy might be as talented as he is delusional, a wish cruelly dismantled. Ridley’s peculiar brand of humour is central here. “What’s funny?” puzzles Donny. Harsh (bad) jokes are bravely played with, raising questions, teasing and probing the audience.

Dealing with such a downright scary character needs a fine balance that Verey masters. Fanaticism and some frighteningly convincing panic attacks aren’t easy to watch. There’s an array of voices – family, neighbours and his unfortunately unglamorous assistant – all cleverly delivered. The mix of intrigue and sympathy is well managed.

Ridley has a light touch when it comes to contemporary questions. Internet trolls play a part, as do the cult of celebrity and art as therapy. Where some might hammer at these themes, Ridley never loses the focus of telling a story. Taking us into the mind of Donny Stixx may not be pleasant, but it’s an unforgettable trip.

Photo by Savannah Photographic

www.bunkertheatre.com

Until 3 December 2016

“Radiant Vermin” at the Soho Theatre

Although I admire Philip Ridley’s work, and believe that he will be a writer with an enduring legacy, his plays should be approached with caution, as his stories and imagery are as ruthless as they are rich – visceral is the word often used. Ridley’s latest work, Radiant Vermin, emphasises his interest in fairy tales and, taking the housing crisis as its subject, is more overtly satirical than other pieces. Startlingly original, the play is a take on Londoners’ desperation for a home, and proves thought provoking, eminently theatrical and superbly written.

Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey star as Jill and Ollie, “good people” offered the chance to participate with the Department of Social Regeneration through the Creation of Dream Homes. A fairy godmother figure, Miss Dee, says nothing about the supernatural catch – renovations occur when homeless people are killed – linking the housing crisis to bigger societal problems and affording Ridley lyrical scope. Playing both Miss Dee and a homeless woman sacrificed to transform Jill and Ollie’s home, Amanda Daniels gives two great performances. Whelan and Verey also dazzle with multiple roles, including neighbours who move to the gentrified area, performing awe-inspiring verbal gymnastics.

For some, the allegorical quality of Radiant Vermin will be too heavy handed, the tone too preachy and the scenes too long. But Ridley is a writer of excess – fantastical and baroque – who deserves indulgence. The play makes a stark comparison with Mike Bartlett’s Game, sharing subject matter and an outlandish approach. The comparison confirms Ridley’s skills. While Bartlett has huge technical resources, Ridley’s work is presented on white stage. Inspiringly, bells and whistles aren’t needed by Ridley – just the words.

Until 12 April 2015

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Anna Soberblom

“The Pitchfork Disney” at the Arcola Theatre

The Arcola’s new production of Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney marks the play’s 21st anniversary. It’s a study in terror, which might lead us to speculate whether our collective fears have changed in texture over the last two decades. Ultimately Ridley deals with such basic, and base, themes that his work remains alarming and powerful.

Under Edward Dick’s faultless direction, Chris New and Mariah Gale are remarkable as Presley and Haley – pill-popping, chocolate gorging twins with a psychotic bent. Agoraphobics who wallow in their piteous existence, they tell stories to each other not just for escapism but to perpetuate their trauma.

And what stories, hypnotically poetic, ruthlessly insightful and grotesquely overblown as they are. The cast revel in the telling, with New especially adept in bringing out the morbid, humorous edge. His Presley peeps through the letterbox, looking at the real world but describing his imagined apocalypse.

When the door to this disgusting flat is opened, inviting in a “pretty boy and a foreigner”, we start to see connections between their fantasies and what really exists. Cosmo Disney has a thought-provoking story of his own, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s performance in the role is captivating. He damns the twins as “ancient children” and mocks mankind’s desire for a “daily dose of disgust”, making his dissecting analysis more like a vivisection.

Disney is a performer and Stewart-Jarrett preens to perfection, with a cabaret trick of eating cockroaches. But The Pitchfork Disney doesn’t just curl toes – it surprises. When Disney’s fellow performer Pitchfork arrives, it is into a bizarre, spooky and fantastic scene that doesn’t deserve a plot spoiler. Presley’s nightmare starts to come to life and they play’s conclusion is truly desperate.

If people such as these exist, they surely don’t get this weird without something happening to them. Ridley never offers us a specific reason and his play is so full of themes that the mind boggles. In this way, he leaves us to examine our own fears of “freak accidents and freaks” – and that of course, is truly scary.

Until 17 March 2012

www.arcolatheatre.com

Written 2 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“Moonfleece” at Rich Mix

When Polonius introduces the players to Hamlet, he describes their talents in a variety of genres – “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical” and so on. Similarly when Zak, the street artist storyteller in Philip Ridley’s new play Moonfleece, is introduced it is as someone who can convey “Fantasy. Thriller. Thriller-fantasy. Comedy-weepie-fantasy”.  Ridley knows all these ingredients should be present in a good story – and they certainly are in this one. It is almost as if he has taken inspiration from the venue that hosts this new premiere and created a Rich Mix indeed.

The setting is not Elisinore but East London. Not a castle but a derelict tower block. Again, Rich Mix, as Shoreditch’s new arts venue based in a converted leather factory, seems appropriate. Of course every Englishman’s home is his castle and Curtis, played by Sean Verey, has taken this truism to heart. Returning to his childhood flat, he is quick to point it out to the squatter that he finds there.

It seems this is to be a political play. Curtis is stepson to a potentially powerful right-wing politician. In attendance are his goons, Gavin and Tommy, Ashley George and Bradley Taylor respectively. All dressed in smart, slightly too tight suits, they are making an effort to look and behave respectably. Tommy has the frustrating job of keeping Gavin in line; motivated more by his friendship with Curtis his character has more depth, but both these thugs are distinctly unlikeable.  Their ignorance makes them an easy target for humour. Not that the threat of right-wing politics that Ridley observes isn’t real, while his characters are predictably moronic enough to be the butt of jokes, Ridley understands the power of such hateful politicians comes from the stories that they tell people.

It’s stories again. Curtis has come home because he is haunted by a story from his past. Into the action enters his former girlfriend Sarah. In this role Emily Plumtree shows a convincing repulsion for the fascist her old childhood sweetheart has become, but also sees past the politics to his pain.  For reinforcement she brings her friends. Alex, played with great energy by Krupa Pattani, and would-be journalist and activist Jez (David Ames), who could easily have walked off the Shoreditch streets with his perfectly pitched cool attitude. Central to the task at hand is Nina, a child librarian-come-psychic who is about to conduct a séance at Curtis’ request.

Sian Robins-Grace plays Nina with great charm and she skilfully holds this strange band of eccentrics together for the gripping events. During the séance, Sean Verey’s performance becomes increasingly impressive as tension mounts and then deeply moving as Robins-Grace coaxes Zak into telling the final part of the story.

A late arrival on the rather densely populated stage is Zak (Beru Tessema), who has a captivating energy. Constrained by a promise not reveal events, he constructs a story to explain what has happened. Given plenty of clues, the audience may guess the outcome but the journey itself is worthwhile. As one of the characters remarks, this isn’t the stuff of Disney, but for all the fantasy and bizarre, surreal content, this tale is a way to the truth. Painful for both his character and his audience Zak’s narrative seems to embody the role of the playwright. Like the rest of this play his speech is wonderfully written.  Moonfleece is a dark and disturbing, yet strangely magical fairytale for our times.

Until 13 March 2010

www.richmix.org.uk

Written 4 March 2010 for The London Magazine