Philip Ridley is riding high at the moment. As the outstanding Arcola revival of his first seminal play The Pitchfork Disney is about to close, his new work opens at the same venue that premiered Tender Napalm so successfully last year. The murky brick tunnels and rumbling overhead trains of Southwark Playhouse set the mood perfectly for Shivered, a powerful drama as much about the unseen terrors of the imagination as the horrors of the tangible world.

Set in the fictional new town of Draylingstowe in Essex, based around a now defunct and possibly poisonous car plant, the play explores the intertwined misfortunes of two families over 12 years. While his parents’ marriage tragically implodes after the beheading of his elder soldier brother by Jihadists, the lonely, troubled 12-year-old Ryan befriends Jack, a not-too-bright, bullied boy who looks after his clinically obese mother. But their bonding over a common interest in lurid sci-fi adventures is blown apart by all-too-real violence.

As its title suggest, Shivered is about fragmentation, as we see the break-up of families, friendships and community, as well as the shattering of certainties between reality and fantasy. This is reflected in the fascinating way Ridley has constructed the play, with 17 brilliantly linked scenes performed non-chronologically as we move back and forth in time, painfully piecing together the shards of glass.

Joseph Drake & Olivia Poulet in Shivered

Although the play touches on topical issues of the ‘war against terrorism’ and post-industrial decline, Shivered focuses on the Ridleyan themes of fractured relationships, ‘monsters’ within and without, and storytelling as both escapist deception and therapeutic release, as the characters and the audience struggle to understand what is fact and what is fiction.

Director Russell Bolam ensures the action remains fluid, getting the most out of a terrific cast. Joseph Drake is touchingly naïve as the damaged, nerdy Ryan, suggesting how his search for aliens is also an attempt to retain contact with his vanished amateur photographer father (Simon Lenagan).

Robbie Jarvis boils over with anger as his brutalised brother on a home visit prior to his fatal return to war, while Olivia Poulet shows his mother cracking up with grief and resorting to casual sex games. Josh Williams gives a superb performance as the immature but likeable Jack, unable to differentiate between video nasties and actual suffering, with his medium mother (Amanda Daniels) exploiting her ‘illness’. And Andrew Hawley makes a splendidly ambivalent shaman/charlatan fairground hustler, profiting from others’ illusions.

Though perhaps sometimes guilty in the past of self-indulgent word-spinning, Shivered shows Ridley at his imaginative best in what is arguably his most moving and accessible adult play to date.

- Neil Dowden