Radiant Vermin (Soho Theatre)

Philip Ridley’s take on the housing crisis is a ‘piquant little satire’

Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan
Sean Michael Verey and Gemma Whelan
© Anna Soderblom

Another week, another aspiring young couple given a free home in a Faustian pact. But where the naive young tenants in Mike Bartlett’s Game get stuck, passively, at the bottom of the pile, shot at and shat on at every turn, Philip Ridley‘s pair of proud proprietors are on the rise, agents of social change and suburban regeneration. Radiant Vermin is, unquestionably, the more sophisticated picture of our crocked property market. Essentially, it’s a Thatcherite fairytale.

Jill and Ollie are every wide-eyed young couple in every mortgage advert ever. Stuck in a dead-end, run-down sink estate, surrounded by suicidal Russian drug dealers, they get the chance of a lifetime when an estate agent, Miss Dee, turns up with a contract (terms and conditions apply…) offering a free three-bed home. Sure, it’s dishevelled now – no wiring, no water – but with a bit of work, it’s a dream home in waiting. It’s got – wait for it – potential.

That’s Thatcherism through and through, of course; the chance to buy your own home at a cut-down rate – a policy precision-built to prey on natural human aspiration, locking one into a life chasing horizons. Jill’s expecting and expectant. Ollie’s pessimistic but protective. It’s an offer they couldn’t refuse even if they wanted to.

Ridley gives it a fantastical twist when Ollie accidentally impales a homeless intruder on a coat hook. Sixty-six point six seconds later, the corpse disappears, leaving the room transformed. "What are you saying?" Jill asks, "That you killed a vagrant and he’s been reincarnated as a designer kitchen?" Pretty soon, they’re herding the homeless home each night. Zing. New bathroom. Zing. New car. Zing. New nursery, garden and – oh why not – an even newer new kitchen. And sure enough, in come the neighbours: models, small-business owners, old money, celebs. Zing. Zing. Ker-ching.

It’s a piquant little satire, heaving with literary allusions from Adam and Eve to Cinderella. (‘You shall go to Farrow and Ball’). Ridley makes it abundantly clear that social climbing implies a social cost, namely those tramped down underfoot, and he’s sharp on the way one’s blessings calcify into one’s just deserts.

True, as Jill and Ollie get one step ahead, so do we, but if the outcome’s obvious that’s because the outcome of capitalism is obvious. Ridley’s final scene pulls that off with real flair, writing a garden party that gives the actors too much to do and too many characters to juggle; a tart metaphor for the overload of late capitalism and her overstretched strivers.

David Mercatali‘s production has a real spring in its step, revelling in its cartoon violence and pastiching everything from Changing Rooms to J.G. Ballard. Gemma Whelan takes Jill from prim to pushy, showing that behind the social snob’s ps and qs are a whole load of 'fuck yous', while Sean Michael Verey captures the quivering anxiety and wet-fish compliance of the capitalist workforce, which – as we know every bit as well as Ridley – includes each and every one of us.

Radiant Vermin runs at the Soho Theatre until 12 April