As Philip Ridley told Whatsonstage.com the other day, the idea of “shut-ins,” or people who lock themselves away, is now very common. Twenty-one years ago, when this remarkable debut play was first seen at the Bush, Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles seemed a more obvious point of reference.
The hideaways, 28 year-old twins Presley and Haley Stray, are boarded up inside their East End home. Outside, the world’s a wasteland with falling snow. Presley’s been shopping for their chocolate supply, and the days pass with medicine and stories.
“We all need our daily dose of disgust,” says the pretty boy intruder, the cockroach-eating entertainer Cosmo Disney (the physically flawless Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in a red spangly jacket), who disrupts the crypto-incestuous idyll with his looming associate in leatherette bondage gear, the invisible hulk, Pitchfork Cavalier (Steve Guadino).
Although Ridley’s indirectly indebted to Pinter and Joe Orton, his wild theatrical imagination is really all his own, based in childhood nightmare and a vivid predilection for word-painting.
There’s an eight-page speech late on, about escaping the child snatcher and starting a nuclear war, that a highly animated Chris New as Presley discharges with riveting scariness. All the characters speak slightly “beyond” themselves.
By this time, Mariah Gale’s neurasthenic, black-eyed Haley is unconscious with her daily drug, wrapped in a blanket, still wondering why Mum and Dad disappeared all those years ago. Presley’s the repository of East End memories, a walking lament for his own lost background: trips to the zoo in Dad’s beige Hillman, fish and chips on a Friday night, the comfort of the corner shop; all gone.
Haley’s big story comes early on, when she was saved from seven rabid dogs by rushing into a derelict church and embracing a large crucifix. The priest who found her made her make a confession. Ridley’s theatre pushes his characters even further, into violent fantasy and trembling fear; and any audience is fraught with danger.
Ridley’s second play, The Fastest Clock in the Universe, was a big advance on this one, but Edward Dick’s beautifully rhythmed production, designed by Bob Bailey and lit with atmospheric virtuosity by Malcolm Rippeth, is as much of a guilty treat as was his revival of Fastest Clock at Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago.