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Tender Napalam at The King's Head Theatre – review

Philip Ridley's 2011 play returns to the stage

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Tender Napalm
© Mark Senior

Whilst Tender Napalm physically takes place on a sunken, white stage in Islington, almost like a kind of shallow swimming pool, the play's script is not so tethered to reality. The space that is shared by the story's pair of lovers may as well be fathoms deep given the lengths to which their dreams, lusts and fears are explored over the course of the play. A few inches below ground doesn't feel quite appropriate for how utterly adrift Tender Napalm is from time and place.

As a whole, the play feels akin to a kind of bedtime tale one lover might tell another for a laugh. This is fantastical and absurdist writing at times, and depending on your taste could be completely up your street or sound like the kind of thing that's only entertaining when you actually know the person telling the story. It's often the case that dreams are funnier in your own head as opposed to when you describe them to someone else, and (at least to this writer) Tender Napalm does risk leaning into self-indulgence at times.

In fairness, Adeline Waby and Jaz Hutchins as the woman and man achieve a great deal on a simple set and their chemistry feels completely genuine. There is a lot to admire in the sheer physical effort that Hutchins applies, flying off one side of the stage only to pop up somewhere completely unexpected, but this ties in with the loonier aspects of the prose in a way that actually feels quite charming.

He is self-effacing in an amusing way and that kind of energy is needed for a play that borders on being, if not daft, then at least magical. Conveying the slaughter of a giant serpent or the control of a monkey army may sound unfeasible without any props but the pair perform admirably throughout.

The biggest problem with Tender Napalm is that it is almost completely made up of fantastical monologues that only really come into focus during the final ten minutes. It feels at times that the story is adrift somewhere down in the depths of the characters' conjoined imagination but the climax does an excellent job of bringing the play back to the surface for air. The production would be lost without it but whether it is a case of too little too late is up for debate.