Under the arches beneath London Bridge railway station, an astounding thing is happening: Philip Ridley is having fun. Neither his children’s nor his adults’ plays are by any means joyless or humourless, but it is joy in the teeth of danger, humour on a knife-edge with devastation. This is the man whom I saw make an award acceptance speech that was interrupted by a crocodile of schoolkids and resume with the words, “I’m reminded that one of the major themes in my work is mutilating children.” However, this seasonal family show is liberally laced with, well, jokes. And not just jokes, but outright self-parody.
In Feathers in the Snow one character, the young female protagonist’s pet bird, can cheerily begin his narration with “I’m not going to be around for much longer, so make the most of it”; elsewhere, it is considered too grisly to actually portray a fatal leopard attack, so the big cat and its victim affably recount the episode like a couple of breakfast TV anchors (“You were bleeding horribly”). David Mercatali demonstrates why he currently enjoys Most Favoured Director status with regard to Ridley’s work by making sure the blackness of moments like these is blithe rather than lowering. In general he keeps things skipping along through two hours of rambling saga (and 500 years of internal history) with a principal cast of six plus another dozen and a half members of Southwark Playhouse’s young company meshing together in fine ensemble work. Adam Venus, in particular, excels as everything from that bird and leopard to a gossipy midwife and a succession of historians.
The preoccupations are standard Ridley: stories (“story” crops up within the first 10 words – possibly more self-parody) and home, our constant yearning for each and the way we sometimes use the former to build the latter. In a folk-tale style quite different from his more usual dark magic realism, we see religion, wars, fanaticism, Mutually Assured Destruction as well as individuals and groups simply trying to find lives for themselves in an unreliable world. It will shake no one’s worldview, nor does it set out to, yet if you watch attentively you can spot substantive and complex ideas gliding past: file for later consideration if you will, or if not, not. For once, though, Ridley is stressing the “fun” in profundity.