Playwright Philip Ridley revels in producing shocking work – Faber and Faber refused to publish his 2005 play Mercury Fur, while during the original run of the 1991 The Pitchfork Disney at the Bush Theatre there were backstage discussions about whether there should be a nurse present to help with fainting audience members.
Here the writer returns with a new set of monologues, delivered by Jesus Christ Superstar's Tyrone Huntley and the Chronicles of Narnia actress Georgie Henley. Collectively titled Angry, they bounce from topic to topic, varying in length from mere minutes to longer, more fully formed narratives. The subject areas are vast – clubbing, refugee lives, budding romances and the inside of a black hole are all given a nod.
The shorter pieces are more playful asides – some feel incredibly abrupt, like the surreally macabre Dancing (about beheadings and literal murder on the dancefloor), while others, like the opening Angry, overstaying their welcome. Nothing really lives up to the disquieting power of the Ridley's earlier shows, like Pitchfork, Radiant Vermin or Tonight with Donny Stixx. No need for nurses present. Each monologue is degendered and, on a performance-by-performance basis, delivered by alternating actors. It's a neat trick, allowing audiences to mull over how the counterpart would have tackled the same subject, but beyond this doesn't add much to the spectacle.
It is down to the performances to lift the production into something more engaging, and the two actors fare admirably well under Max Lindsay's direction. Huntley is saddled, perhaps, with the more one-note half of the six monologues, forced in the titular piece to persistently shout and scream about Bambi, while another, Now, a metaphysical journey that goes from a bomb site to a black hole, is elusive. His more extended, tender performance, about a quiet romance in Victoria Park, feels more wholesome and complete, allowing Huntley the storyteller to create a sense of real affection.
But this is Henley's show, through and through, and Ridley's monologues are the perfect vehicle for an actor ready and able to make a big impression. Creating three different characters with each of her three texts, it is her final piece, Air, that stands out. A tragically crafted tale that leaps between social commentary and cutesy romance (think Fleabag with a dose of Richard Curtis), the piece naturally evolves into a parable about the lives of refugees. Henley's physical control and ability to construct countless individuals feels uncannily effortless and, for a performer making their professional stage debut, this no doubt bodes well for the future.
The neon intensity of Cassie Mitchell's lighting and James Donnelly's set compliments the piece nicely, while Jim Whitcher's soundscape, all Hans Zimmer-esque drum riffs and clattering throbbing sounds, ramp up the tension.
While some, especially Air, function well as standalone pieces, they never seem greater than the sum of their parts. It's a motley collection, strung together as much out of convenience as out of thematic links, much in the same way Ridley's Killer did at Shoreditch Town Hall last year. A solid display from one of the nation's most cutting writers, but never really gelling as a solid 90-minute show.
Angry runs at Southwark Playhouse until 10 March.