Doctor Faustus my Stinker of 2016. Perhaps Lloyd himself feels the scale of things had got a bit out of his control because his first few projects of 2017 see him taking a step back towards something a bit more intimate - although not necessarily low-key, as he opens a mini-season of Philip Ridley plays at Shoreditch Town Hall with the playwright's 1991 debut, The Pitchfork Disney. Presley (George Blagden) and Haley Stray (Hayley Squires) are 28-year-old twins and the only survivors of the apocalypse - at least that's the story they tell themselves to justify their childlike lives cloistered in an East London flat. In fact ever since their parents died a decade ago - probably murdered, possibly by Presley - they've retreated into a co-dependent world of dark fairytales, drugged into sleep much of the time and hardly going out except to stock up on the chocolate that seems to be all they eat.
But Presley allows their cocoon to be penetrated once Haley's gone to sleep and he
spots a man with movie-star good looks on the street outside, seemingly in some
pain, and can't resist inviting him in.
Cosmo Disney (Tom Rhys Harries) is a showman who makes his money by eating live
cockroaches and small animals for an audience, and he bursts into the flat demanding
to know everything about the twins, taunting Presley's obvious attraction to him -
he alternates between lisping flirtation and violently rejecting him with homophobic
rants and insistence that he never be touched by a man. The Pitchfork Disney
shows its early-'90s origin in themes that seem to hint at the AIDS crisis that
dominated a lot of theatre at the time, but it's wrapped up in the kind of poetic
madness and fantasy that would become a Ridley trademark - it's perhaps even harder
to pin down to a meaning than his later work, which means it always seems to be
timely. Right now a desire to leave the world behind and fear of an apocalyptic
event feel relevant. This time around I also felt echoes of Dennis Potter's
Brimstone and Treacle in Cosmo's sexual obsession with the near-comatose Haley.
Lloyd's Ridley season all takes place in the basements of Shoreditch Town Hall, and
for this play it's a traverse staging in one very long room which Soutra Gilmour has
cluttered with old furniture and Richard Howell dimly lit, the audience seating a
mismatched collection of old chairs, tables and trunks. With such a long and narrow
traverse other audience members can sometimes get in your eyeline but what the
design loses in visibility it gains in queasy intimacy - a lot gets thrown up,
drooled and spat out in this show, and once Pitchfork Cavalier (Seun Shote) arrives
it really takes the opportunity to dive into the nightmarish.
Presley is a challenging role that has to carry much of the play, and Blagden
particularly shines in the recounting of his recurring nightmare, while Harries
is ideal casting as the pretty-boy showman whose constant air of menace increasingly
suggests he is that very nightmare come to life. Haley spends most of the play
asleep but Squires still manages to make an impression as the girl who constantly
insists she's not vulnerable while appearing on the verge of a panic attack. And
saying almost anything about Pitchfork Cavalier would constitute a spoiler but
suffice it to say Shote doesn't hold back, while Gilmour's choice of costume
material creates a sound that adds to the unsettling effect.
It's an intense production made more so by the proximity to events that sometimes
feel moments away from spinning off out of control, and if Lloyd's high profile
brings more people to Ridley's twisted world that can only be a good thing. It also
feels like it's refreshed the director after his recent bloated period - at ten
minutes shorter than the last production I saw, this sees the urgent, energised pace
that used to be Lloyd's trademark back in place.
Ridley memes: Chocolate/biscuits, insect-eating, and the way Pitchfork Cavalier walks suggests we can add leg injury to the list.
The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley is booking in repertory until the 18th of
March at Shoreditch Town Hall.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Matt Humphrey.