Philip Ridley has long been heralded as a chief proponent of ‘in yer face theatre’; a playwright who ripped down theatre’s fussy and formal framework and opened up dark and exciting, new places in which poetry could roam, wild and free. But it would be foolish to label Ridley’s plays as thrilling but abstract fantasies. For all that mesmerising obscurity and misdirection, Ridley’s plays address a vast range of prescient ideas.
The Pitchfork Disney, which was first staged at the Bush in 1991, could have been written yesterday. It is a play of our time, written by a playwright who was (and is) ahead of his. Ostensibly, the play tracks two abandoned siblings, Presley and Hayley, whose closed off and chocolate-filled existence is blown apart by the arrival of two very strange strangers. But Edward Dick’s beautifully undulating production, directed with real humility and sensitivity, is about so much more.
Bubbling away in this cauldron of emotion and ideas, is the theme of homosexuality and exclusion. I have never before extracted such a concrete idea from one of Ridley’s plays, but this theme is impossible to ignore in Edward Dick’s clear-headed but head-spinning production. Presley’s naked desire to be touched by the imposter, Cosmo Disney, and his heartbreaking nightmare, in which his is the ‘last voice in the world’, shows a man whose sexual yearnings have left him utterly alone. His lust for love has cut him off completely from the the dark wasteland beyond his door.
This desire for contact – and the isolation borne from this desire – is just one of a stream of provocative inversions, which flow through Ridley’s play. Absolutely everything – language, emotions, visuals - is turned inside out. This idea of a topsy turvy world is reflected in Bob Bailey’s striking design, which places the sibling’s floor on a raised platform, lit from below. It feels a bit like the ceiling is beneath Presley and Hayley – or that the sun is beneath them and the light, that they might have drawn from their parents’ love, is trapped underground forever.
These inversions permeate Ridley’s script and lie in wait, like landmines for the brain. The sweet chocolate these two love is, in reality, rotting their teeth. The dummy Hayley uses for comfort is soaked in poison. The release that Hayley (Mariah Gale in a performance so raw she might as well have shed her skin) seeks in sleep, only brings her agonizing nightmares. And the company that Presley longs for in Cosmo, draws him further still from the rest of society.
But it isn’t just the world inside Presley’s flimsy door that Ridley examines with his forensic poetry. This is also a play about public degradation – about society’s widespread and unthinking debasement. When Cosmo suggests the idea of a public execution, one can almost hear the TV producers’ pens twitching with excitement (I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here FOREVER!’). The parallels continue when we discover that Cosmo – a warped Mickey Mouse, dressed in a red, sparkly jacket - reveals that he eats cockroaches for a living. As Cosmo (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) munches on a cockroach, cooing ‘The queasier it gets, the more they pay’, one’s mind inevitably turns, again, to ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ The only difference here is that the deadening crunch, as the cockroach cracks, makes Ridley’s horror show bitingly more realistic than supposed reality-TV.
The allusions to contemporary issues continue to surface in the strangest of places. When Cosmo’s ‘business partner’, Pitchfork, arrives he looks like a galactic creature, wrapped in bacofoil. But even this most outlandish creation still fits into today’s world. As Pitchfork opens his twisted mouth to sing, letting out a stream of strangled sounds, it could be all the ‘comedy’ X Factor auditions rolled into one. It is a tragic song, as if the whole world’s heartbreak has been channelled into one horrific and tuneless melody.