Philip Ridley’s 1991 debut is the play that is said to have kick-started “In-Yer-Face” drama – an era from which many disparate and sometimes desperate dramatic voices emerged, among them the late Sarah Kane (Blasted, 4.48 Psychosis) and the still-thriving Mark Ravenhill, whose sexually explicit Shopping and Fucking defined the kind of theatre that sears itself to the memory.
There are those who have recently questioned whether the plays that came out of that period deserve their reputation as being the most exciting wave of drama since the Osborne-led revolution of the 1950s. This fine production should hush the doubters for a while.
That said, the line I remember most clearly from the night I saw Ravenhill’s most famous offering actually came after the play finished, as the subdued audience filed out of the theatre into the West End. It was said by a New York lady of a certain age, who turned to her companion and said, “Well, there wasn’t much shopping.”
On that score she may have preferred Ridley’s play, which at least features two kinds of consumerism: the eating of chocolate bars, which Presley shares with his twin sister Haley, and the taking of pills and potions, which the 28-year-old siblings use to subdue fear. If the play’s mystery lies largely in never quite knowing the source of that fear, its power lies in communicating it to the audience, something that Edward Dick’s production achieves with sure-footed subtlety.
Among the things we do know for certain about Presley and Hayley – respectively Chris New and RSC actor Mariah Gale - is that they are adult orphans. Other than the drugs and chocolate, they exist on a diet of nostalgia for the childhood they had before their parents died an untimely death.
There is a sense here of a generation adrift and ill-equipped to deal with harsh realities. They console themselves by imagining that the world beyond their front door has been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, leaving them the only survivors – saved because they were good children. And if the arrival of the sinister Cosmo Disney (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) proves that the apocalypse is yet to happen, it also confirms that the world is far more brutal than the one the twins were prepared for by their much-missed parents.
To focus only on the sensationalist scenes in this play – the eating of insects, the incoherent singing of a ballad by a terrifying man-monster dressed in bondage PVC – would be to miss the undercurrent of tenderness and humanity of Ridley’s writing. It is at its best here with the soaring monologues during which brother and sister describe their nightmares. Each is like a mini thriller. They are lyrical, fantastical and superbly delivered by Gale and New. On the other hand, there are crustacean-crunching moments when the urge to view the play through gaps in your fingers is almost overwhelming – though thanks to the mesmerising New, it is never quite necessary to succumb. To add some context, Ridley's later play Mercury Fur was also hard to watch, although those characters inhabit the kind of post-apocalyptic world only imagined by Harley and Presley.
For this revival Dick delivers exactly the kind of production the play deserves. Mood is modulated with Richard Hammarton’s eerie soundtrack and Malcolm Rippeth’s stark and subtle lighting. Designer Bob Bailey evokes the room in which all the action takes place with not much more than a square of chintzy carpet.