I came just a little late to Philip Ridley as a playwright, missing his explosive 1991 debut The Pitchfork Disney. Watching this 21st-anniversary revival, it is still easy to see why it made such an impact. Its extremity of situation and poetic language (the Wikipedia description of it as “a dreamlike piece with surreal undertones” is a masterpiece of understatement) anticipated many elements of what in the following few years would become known as “in-yer-face” theatre.
But what Ridley unleashed most of all, and what he has seldom been equalled at, is an electrifying ardour for telling stories and the value of same. As agoraphobic twins Presley and Haley Stray recount dreams, imagined incidents, or a post-apocalyptic fantasy of the world outside, they are enacting ways of understanding and coping with the world and with each other. The wildest and most unreal elements rub up against the everyday: proceedings begin with a screaming argument about types of chocolate. And sometimes, as a programme essay observes, Ridley has proven prophetic: who, watching in 1991 the charismatic but menacing visitor Cosmo Disney give a demonstration of his carny shtick of eating cockroaches, would have foreseen a regular stream of celebrities undergoing bush tucker trials on primetime TV? Ridley’s “East End Gothic” milieu feels less exotic now, despite or perhaps because of being staged only a couple of miles from the playwright’s home turf of Bethnal Green. But the sheer creative energy remains undiminished.
Chris New sets out to be physically unprepossessing as Presley; it is when he opens his mouth that he makes his presence felt, particularly in his lengthy, detailed, central dream-story of a serial killer called the Pitchfork Disney. This, in turn, gives Nathan Stewart-Jarrett a chance to ease up as Cosmo, after a long stretch of exuding self-satisfaction from every pore and Machiavellian manipulation of Presley. Mariah Gale performs selflessly in that, after an intense two-handed opening, she spends most of the next hour or so acting being asleep, with only occasional nightmare outbursts; but even her restraint is outdone by Steve Guadino as the virtually mute, gimp-suited late arrival Pitchfork. Director Edward Dick, who in 2009 revived Ridley’s second play The Fastest Clock in the Universe, knows just how to mix the reality and the un- into a most disturbing blend.