Philip Ridley’s best work picks off the scab of everyday life to reveal the strange and twisted rot beneath. His writing is beautiful and fetid, evoking a sickly world covered in a feverish sheen of lies, exploitation and abuse. His latest play – returning to Soho Theatre after an award-winning run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival – distils this into one angry and broken voice.
Andrea (Gemma Whelan), a 16-year-old with a flower in her hair, appears before us clutching her white top and pacing the stage. Her words spill out in a rush of memories, hesitant entreaties and foul-mouthed rage. She mentions a baby. A soldier. Something terrible has happened. We are witnesses to a testimony that is also a harrowing tale of utter hopelessness.
David Mercatali’s production strips everything away, leaving Whelan as the only presence in designer William Reynolds’ harshly lit and empty set. She is the entire world, her words its only reality. There are no checks and balances; and there’s nowhere for her to rest, sit or hide as she picks through the shards of her life, her abandonment by her mother and her rape by men in a grimy apartment block.
Ridley dispenses with the dark fairy tale tones of his earlier plays, looping Andrea’s self-protective, increasingly dangerous fantasies through a patina of clichéd ‘adult’ expressions, favoured junk food and half-remembered song lyrics from happier times. Her monologue becomes a poem full of blood and cum, shaped by trauma.
Whelan gives an astonishing performance – a spittle-flecked portrait of ruined innocence, riven with burning obsession and nerve-exposed vulnerability. As the full extent of what Andrea has done becomes clear, it would be easy to condemn her as monstrous. But her behaviour has been shaped by everyone who has hurt her, and Whelan ensures we feel every damaging blow.
Behind Andrea’s words we glimpse a world – specifically London – defined by neglect, where family ties are an inconvenience and children are left to fend for themselves: a poverty-filled landscape of teenage pregnancies, cavernous shopping centres and endless motorways, where crippled soldiers are shunted away in piss-stinking hospitals.
Andrea’s speech brims with the misogyny of the countless people who have exploited her and degraded her, as she fantasises about stoning ‘sluts’ and casually mentions that a male nurse wants to suck her nipples. Men are sexual predators and women should be subservient. In her self-abjection, we see a society that has long since come apart at the seams.
The production’s ferocious pace grants the play a breathless power, but a few moments would benefit from a pause: sometimes, the unrelenting sound and fury drowns out the horror of what Andrea is saying. And her scripted interactions with the audience bring an obvious layer of artifice to a script that doesn’t need to justify its set-up to be utterly, chillingly believable.
In many ways, this solo play is Ridley at his most uncompromising. There’s no elaborate scenario or rhetorical grandstanding, just an intense focus on character and an anatomisation of our capacity to harm each other in multiple lacerating ways. It’s not without flashes of dark humour, but its heart is brutally, unforgettably serious.
Part of the Soho Solo season at Soho Theatre.