Philip Ridley’s new play is a deeply disturbing portrait of a dysfunctional family whose lives are blighted by the rattling of a wardrobe-full of skeletons. Leaves of Glass may not be as shocking as Ridley’s previous work Mercury Fur – in which businessmen butchered schoolkids for fun – or as provocative as his in-yer-face theatre of the Nineties. But its more subtle, ambiguous exposé of the dark side of the human psyche is all the more powerful for leaving unanswered questions in the air.
At the centre of the drama is the relationship between two brothers. Steven appears to have everything going for him: a profitable business (‘Graffiti Busters’) and a stylish home, a first child on the way. Barry’s life, on the other hand, seems to be a complete mess, as an alcoholic with mental-health issues, who can’t hold a job down. However, the dynamic between them changes after Steven has a car crash and becomes haunted by the figure of the boy he swerved to avoid: the shock unlocks repressed memories and feelings about their harrowing family history.
Though his mother’s favourite and a successful businessman, Steven has always been jealous of Barry’s special relationship with their dead father and of his artistic talent. Steven’s kindly elder brother act is as much to do with controlling Barry as with fraternal love. As their power struggle fluctuates and violence erupts, the spectres of suicide and paedophilia rear their ugly heads to a family long used to living in the shadows of secrecy and denial: they may have rewritten the past but truth still lurks in the subconscious.
In her debut as artistic director of Soho Theatre, Lisa Goldman has delivered a taut and compelling production which plays for two hours without an interval. Laura Hopkins’ design - including two mini-revolves which move furniture onto the stage in furtive, poltergeist-like fashion - is highly effective.
Ben Whishaw gives a terrifically intense, nuanced performance as the emotionally handicapped Steven, seemingly in control but knotted up inside, whose monologues to the audience reveal episodes from his childhood which have left their scars. Trystan Gravelle also impresses as Barry, conveying a strong sense of anger born of trauma, though his ‘denouement’ is not totally convincing. There’s good support from Maxine Peake as Steven’s increasingly discontented wife Debbie and Ruth Sheen as Liz, the mother who’s unable to cope with her menfolk’s depression, which she calls a ‘fluey bug’ – some understatement.