Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Ridleys at the Peacock Theatre: A high-octane portrayal of teen psychosis

  • The Ridleys, Peacock Theatre
Rex Ryan in 'Tonight With Donny Stixx'
Rex Ryan in 'Tonight With Donny Stixx'
Katie Honan in 'Dark Vanilla Jungle', part of 'The Ridleys'

Choc-a-bloc with energy but a bit too much schlock, says Emer O'Kelly.

The Ridleys is the composite title for two of award-winning English writer Philip Ridley's monologue plays. It's a bit pretentious and grandiose but the intention, when you read the programme note, is worthy: he wants his audience to reflect on what they're seeing and learn empathy. So, worthy but a bit of a class of a mountainous task.

For an author who crosses many art forms, and seems to see himself as a sort of male Cassandra of the Apocalypse, it has been the entree into almost reverential status. Yet Ridley's work for the stage has always been represented more at Fringe level than taking over main-stage space (with the possible exception of Tender Napalm.)

Ridley has been writing successfully for a quarter of a century, so he can no longer be thought of as an enfant terrible. Indeed, at 54, he might even be expected to be rejected by today's generation as old hat.

Katie Honan in 'Dark Vanilla Jungle', part of 'The Ridleys'
Katie Honan in 'Dark Vanilla Jungle', part of 'The Ridleys'

But he has aged well for them. Whatever about empathy, the violence inherent in all his work has a direct appeal for audiences desensitised to visual violence. And his plays can even seem tame to audiences more familiar with cinema than theatre, and for whom the world is an aggressive battleground, usually for supremacy but at times, in fairness, for survival.

The two plays in The Ridleys offer us characters who initially seem to have little to redeem them. But Ridley allows them to tell their stories, almost as an explanation if not as "an excuse". He tries to make us sympathise with the psychosis if not with its results. (I suspect his success is more likely to be with audiences aged under 35, reared to believe that nobody is ever to be blamed for their actions.)

Karl Shiels's Theatre Upstairs in Dublin has moved location for The Ridleys, for an associate production with the Abbey staged at the Peacock - a fairly ideal venue, size-wise and facility-wise, for the production. And Shiels directs with his usual high-octane energy, well suited to the theme.

In Tonight with Donny Stixx we enter what is clearly a high-security detention centre (chillingly designed by Naomi Faughnan). Donny, still a teenager, may be appealing for understanding or maybe he's just revelling in his own story. His past changes in his own mind, veering between a mother-fixated idyll and a much darker truth.

Donny's ambition has been to become a professional conjurer and at the age of 12, as he tells it, he already was, appearing in shows for the neighbours until the highlight of his "career" - an open talent competition at the local shopping centre.

But Donny doesn't live in a real world: his grasp of reality is all cruel, all dismissive, all envious. Donny sees everything as an endorsement of his fantasies, in which he indulges even when his aunt begs him to visit his dying father. And in a final horror, we learn his greatest fantasy was his rejection of his uncomplaining father in favour of the dead mother who "didn't like imperfect things."

And Donny wasn't, and isn't, perfect. There's a reason he finds himself locked up in isolation: and it's ghoulish...

In Dark Vanilla Jungle we meet Anthea, also a teenager, also incarcerated, and seeming even more vulnerable, perhaps even less "guilty" than Donny. She remembers the reality of her past, though she can't comprehend it in a manner acceptable to society. She doesn't know that it has destroyed her.

Denied normal attention and love by her mother, and by her father when he comes out of jail, Anthea imitates them, as most children imitate their parents. For her, it's a married "boyfriend" who smothers her with unheard of luxury (kebabs) and takes her to a paedophile "party", where she is raped by his friends. And Anthea's life goes out of control as she looks for a situation which she can control.

In her dream world, she finds it in a hospital where she glimpses a mutilated soldier in a vegetative state and insinuates herself into his mother's favour and, ultimately, into their lives. Gary, in her eyes, is the perfect lover and she will be his wife.

The two are played at a frenetic pace by Rex Ryan and Katie Honan, at times to their detriment (particularly in Honan's case). This may have been due to a realisation that both plays are hugely over-written. You can't help suspecting that Ridley is being deliberately provocative at the expense of any serious emotional depth.

Ryan fares the better of the two, with his psychotic mood swings the more believable. Honan, unfortunately, seems to fall into the trap of thinking that playing hysterically is the same as playing an hysteric. And her attempts at a South London accent frequently make her incomprehensible. But both deserve enormous credit for sustained, intense energy in extraordinarily demanding work, despite the overall sense of its being self-indulgent on the author's part.

Sunday Independent

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