Deep into the mesmerising maze that is Philip Ridley’s, Shivered, Ryan tries to appease his seriously rattled older brother, Alec. Soldier, Alec, has returned home to Essex, on leave, and is prone to violent outbursts. Ryan reassures him: ‘You’ve seen stuff…it’s made you…’ But Ryan cannot complete this sentence and it is this enigma – how we are affected by the things we choose to see – that burns at the centre of Ridley’s fiery new play.
Although Ridley’s play spans twelve years and the chronology is as jumpy as a rabbit on heat, it is an exceptionally coherent piece. Shivered is ram-packed with characters who spend their lives searching for, or living within, alternative realities. There is Ryan’s mother, Lyn, who has been so twisted by tragedy, that she must use role play in order to be herself. Her son, Ryan, is equally absorbed in another world and spends most of his time, with mate Jack, searching for monsters. Ryan’s dad, Mikey, is obsessed with UFOs although, in a typical Ridleyesque (if that isn’t a word, it should be) double twist, this extraterrestrial pursuit is really a cover for a reality Mikey - or, at least everyone else – cannot accept: his homosexuality.
There’s more. Ryan’s pal, Jack (an equally repellent and endearing Josh Williams), is so transfixed by YouTube that his life has become a horrifically dark episode of You’ve Been Framed; his everyday experiences, a disappointingly blood-free version of the internet atrocities he greedily seeks out. Jack’s mum, ‘guru for the google age’ Evie, is so enthralled by the dead that she’s all but a corpse herself and fairground worker, Gordy, has made a living out of people’s desire to believe in his shoddy, optical illusions.
Finally, there’s Alex, who on returning from the war, claims: ‘My eyes have been sandblasted clean’. Ours is a world and time, Ridley seems to say, where only unthinkable horror forces us to seek out, or recognise, the truth. Ours is a world, which makes us want to be someone else and live somewhere else. Ours is a world where danger is the only light we seek. Director Russell Bolam emphasises this lurking danger, by abruptly closing most scenes with a thundering noise and a jolt of light. This bold motif clarifies the idea that the only themes which connect these scenes – and which make sense of today’s world – are danger and fear.
The acting is superb and all the performers wriggle restlessly within the endless confines of their complex roles. Olivia Poulet, as royally messed up mother Lyn, is incredibly hostile but occasionally tender. She might snap her son’s pencils but she also ruffles his hair, affectionately, when he carries on regardless. Simon Lenagan digs even deeper with his role, even if does initially appear a solid and straightforward father. His cheery facade drops only a few times but, when it does, there’s maggots and madness crawling underneath: ‘We will wake up every day for the rest of our lives and we will breathe razor blades and we will swim through bleach’.’
No matter where these characters look – or how much they invest in otherworldly pursuits - reality eventually catches up with them. It’s as if life has become a terrible death force, stalking its prey. This sensation is heightened by Ridley’s skewed chronology, which enforces the idea of a hunt – as if the plot is crawling around for its victims. It’s not a question of if the darkness will reach Ridley’s characters – only when.