“It’s a strange kind of dream time.” Playwright, artist, screenwriter and children’s novelist Philip Ridley is talking to me about how it feels finally to be kicking his new play Shivered out of the front door and into the world. But he could also be describing the past few years of his career.
From the 2008 revival of Ridley’s second play The Fastest Clock in the Universe to this year’s acclaimed re-staging of his first, The Pitchfork Disney, critics have been tripping over each other to praise him. And it hasn’t just been old work given a new lick of paint. His brutally honest love story Tender Napalm opened to widespread praise in 2011 and begins touring the UK in May.
When we speak over the phone, two weeks before Shivered’s premiere at Southwark Playhouse (starring Olivia Poulet from The Thick of It), Ridley insists that reviews aren’t important to him. “I don’t live my life for comment. That’s not my agenda. I’m far more interested in what the next project is going to be. People can say what they like.” But he isn’t blind to the irony of his current popularity in critical circles.
Ridley is now recognised as a pioneer of ‘In Yer Face’ theatre, with its no-holds-barred look at the dark things lurking in the human psyche. But when Pitchfork – the play that started it all – opened at the Bush Theatre in 1991 it caused a stir. While popular with younger audiences, many reviewers bred on Eighties agitprop didn’t know what to make of its tale of traumatised, chocolate-loving siblings terrorised in their dead parents’ East End home by a cockroach-regurgitating showman and his gimp sidekick.
The majority didn’t have Ridley’s frame of reference as an artist (he trained at Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design) and few shared his non-theatrical influences: authors like Philip K Dick, filmmakers like David Cronenberg and other Body Horror directors, as well as visual artists like Joseph Cornell. “I was doing monologues and dream sequences in art galleries. I was bringing along a completely different chest of drawers of things, which people couldn’t relate to”, he recalls.
What amuses Ridley looking back at Pitchfork’s initial reviews is that “a lot say that the play is set in a post-apocalyptic world where two people are trying to survive a nuclear holocaust. That’s clearly not the case!” he says, laughing. “So many people didn’t pick up on the fact that the first third of the play is phantasmagoric. Presley and Haley [the siblings] are weaving stories. There’s a truth to these, but it’s metaphorical. They’re like parables.”
So what has changed since? Not only has surrealism and a multidisciplinary approach become more common in theatre, but a post-riot and recession-struck London has caught up with Pitchfork’s vision of an urban landscape shadowed by deprivation and violence. “Being able place it in a body of work has also helped,” Ridley affirms. “The context has become the other plays I’ve done. People can see the journey of my writing a bit more.”
Shivered (which plays on the word’s older meaning, to split asunder) is the latest stop en route. While Ridley asserts that “every new project has always felt like starting from scratch”, this story of a family struggling with loss and dashed hopes in a fictitious Essex new town – loosely inspired by the experiences of some of his friends – is a particular departure from what has gone before.