Philip Ridley’s plays are always populated with monsters. Whether they are fantastical creatures lurking at the edges of civilization, the human predators willing to pounce at the slightest hint of weakness, or simply the demons that crowd the darker reaches of our subconscious, they never quite go away. In this dizzying, gut-churning new monologue, the threat is both external and internal; monsters are on the street and in the mind.
Ridley’s narrator Andrea, a young girl with a fierce but brittle desire to be loved, is haunted and hunted on all sides. Raised with her father out of the picture by a mother who suddenly and violently rejects her, it is little surprise that she doggedly seeks the comfort of affection and family elsewhere, with a determination that gradually tips into obsession. Her first retreat is into the seductive but dangerous world of an older man, followed by an ever more desperate and fantasy-fuelled attempt to gain the safety and love she craves.
This is all told through a furious torrent of words, pouring from Andrea’s lips as though beyond her control – a running tap of confessions that she is unable to turn off. She wants to tell us the truth, she insists, but she has also grown up in a world where the truth must be camouflaged in stories. Memories and fictions wrap themselves around one another; small details are recycled and repurposed, the narrative constructing and reconstructing itself as it goes. As anecdote dissolves into fantasy, it is more and more difficult to grasp onto anything solid.
As is typical of Ridley’s work, there is grit flecked with sparkle and punishing bleakness with a hint of magic. Here the horror centres on the violence of men towards women – “women’s screams are nothing unusual these days,” Andrea tells us – and the complex psychological impact of abuse. But this new piece also feels more concerned with its medium than Ridley’s previous plays, using the monologue form to gently push at the edges of what theatre is and what it does. Actress Gemma Whelan addresses the audience directly, obliquely referring to the situation in which we find ourselves, while Andrea’s frenzied construction of her own story draws attention to the way in which we piece together theatrical narratives. As ever, Ridley is a master of structure.
But this is as much a virtuosic feat of performance as it is of writing. Whelan is utterly mesmerising, lending Andrea a quivering, somehow bird-like quality. Just as the words she speaks flit lightly and sometimes erratically from thought to thought, her mood seems to hop from branch to branch, ever unpredictable but unfailingly convincing, while her presence has the same restless fragility as the delicate winged creatures she spies up in the trees. If Andrea is a bird, she is one caught between the bars of a cage society has built for her; at one point, she even describes her own movement as that of something trapped.
In amongst Andrea’s jumble of anecdotes, fantasies and confessions, one fastens itself particularly firmly to the piece. Discussing nativity paintings, Andrea muses on how artists never show the blood and pain and mess; every depiction of Jesus’ birth is remarkably clean. Art has a habit of cleaning life up, making it pretty or at least investing it with more profound meaning. This is a cosmetic job Ridley refuses to do, preferring to expose life’s inherent ugliness without sacrificing the notion of beauty. Dark Vanilla Jungle never quite reaches a level with Ridley’s best – there’s not the same devastating punch to the stomach as Mercury Fur or the captivating, dreamlike strangeness of The Pitchfork Disney – but his characteristically dark window on the world doesn’t disappoint. When it comes to oddly exquisite horror, no one does it better.