“The Fastest Clock in the Universe” at the Hampstead Theatre

Part of Hampstead Theatre’s 50-year celebration series, the revival of Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe hopes to rekindle the play’s success from its original run in 1992. Given that Ridley is concerned with pretty much all the basic human vices, this disturbing work has retained its power to haunt.

The scenario is distasteful enough. Cougar Glass (Alec Newman) lives off an adoring older man called Captain Took. Easily debilitated by the very mention of his age, each year Cougar celebrates his “19th” birthday by seducing a young schoolboy.

Cougar’s every action is arrogant, his only occupation to preserve his appearance. Fittingly, he spends half of the play in his underwear. Finbar Lynch is terrifying as the clearly unbalanced Took, old before his time and crippled with insecurity about his own appearance. Took dotes on Cougar as mother and housewife, rewarded by a brief hug as long as he agrees to wear rubber gloves.

So far, so strange. Ridley’s master stroke in the telling of this repulsive story is to create a bizarre world that is removed enough from our own to allow us to watch, but which, while exaggerating human nature, makes us recognise characters motivations and faults with great clarity. While references and inspirations from other playwrights are numerous, the spirit is predominately Dickensian. All these strangely named characters inhabit a dilapidated and corrupt East London and display their all too obvious flaws.

A Gothic sense of impending doom comes from the cruel game Cougar plays with his potential victim; he tells the young boy, Foxtrot Darling, that they share a recent bereavement.  As the deception increases and even Captain Took remonstrates with Cougar, we are introduced to our final character – Foxtrot’s unexpected pregnant fiancée Sherbert Gravel has invited herself along to the party as well.

Sherbert, played wonderfully by Jaime Winstone, is the highlight of the play. She brings out the black comedy in the work, alongside the potential for violence that she is finally (and shockingly) a victim to. Yet her barbed asides to Cougar do little to hide her own motivation – her protection of Foxtrot is more about saving herself than the dreary boy whose life she is planning to dominate.

While Winstone’s movement about the stage alone is something to behold – teetering on high heels that might be the death of her or that she might come to use as a weapon – the object of everyone’s affection does little to hold the audience’s attention. Neet Mohan as Darling may have the looks for the part but his vulnerability seems unconvincing. He bounds around the stage and stands on furniture in a manner that doesn’t match Foxtrot’s situation.

And yet the quality of the writing saves the evening.  The dialogue is rich, complex and direct. It is not pleasant but it fascinates. Revelling in his perversity, Cougar describes his guests as fellow cannibals and welcomes us all to the abattoir.

Until 17 October 2009

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 September 2009 for The London Magazine

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