In Bethnal Green, a trash bonfire is being built in the graveyard by the gold mini-skirted, blonde-wigged girl gang who run the streets. Travis Flood (Michael Feast) watches, appalled, from a dingy flat’s window. Having returned to stoke the coals of his glory days as a feared ‘businessman’ (read gangster), he surveys the tiny fire-blackened kitchen he occupies with all the withering arrogance and damaged ego of a debunked god.
Philip Ridley’s play begins, somewhat unexpectedly, by jollying us along with a retro sitcom-style power play. Though Flood starts off all supple soft and dangerous, he’s soon cajoled into playing the fool to seen-it-all matriarch Torchie (Sheila Reid) who’s initially oblivious, then in awe, and finally appalled by the shot-silk suited shark of her heyday. Reid’s ageless impish glitter keeps us sweet through what is a seemingly genial first act, yet amidst the sugary sentiment on ‘salt of the earth people’ complete with cuppas and biccies, there’s a generous sprinkle of bitter, ulcer-inducing grit. Their reminisces, at first rose-tinted, begin bristling with brutality and false memories, imaginary babies and remembered blood, and it all comes to a head with the awaited arrival of girl gang leader granddaughter Baby Rio (Florence Hall) – provocation personified in gold lamé and thigh high boots, bringing a crackle of self-possessed sexuality to the cosy domestics.
It’s only in the final moments of the first act that we realise that the ‘them were the days’ set pieces thus far have only laid the foundation stone for Ridley’s increasingly incendiary storytelling. The second act’s grandiose, grand guignol climax in the kitchen-cum-torture chamber might have been dismissed as shock tactics on its premiere in ’94, but there’s a more biting commentary foregrounded in Bolam’s vision. For Flood, his victims’ fear was requisite proof of their honour and respect, a confirmation of tyrannical, psychopathic power. In contrast, the girls’ sadism against their male targets goes beyond mere self-aggrandisement to a kind of ‘magic’ – transporting, salvational. The new order wrathfully, gleefully displaces the old as, bound to a chair, Flood is subject to a lesson from the ‘three Disciples’. Built upon the improbable immaculate conception and glorification of Lady Donna, the thirteen year old mother martyred by Rio’s birth, the gang’s fanaticism is entirely laughable on some level, yet on another, it’s deeply poignant. Yes, as a ‘religion’, it’s a make-shift mixed up collage of Madonna-worship, unquestioning evangelical fervour and pure bloodthirsty misandry and yes, the phrase ‘Burn the men!’ is uttered, but above all, it’s borne of a very real victimhood, something furious fountaining up at the limits of tolerance. Flood calls the girls ‘nothing’ but it’s everything when it is the alternative to the brutal reality of female experience in gang culture, an ugly truth briefly but painfully, assertively touched upon at several moments.
The sidekicks, Miss. Kerosene and Miss. Sulphur, wield flick-knives and fists, eager to draw blood, but really they draw all their heat from Rio who. in the final scenes becomes a near-celestial being glowing white-hot with pure, puritanical righteousness. Scarlett Brookes offers magnetic support as as Rio’s jagged, ardent lover and Rachel Redford explodes in-gang tensions as third-wheel Miss. Kerosene, a fervent but volatile devotee. As Rio, Hall’s unsettling porcelain composure collides full-force with that omniscient, near-impassive Easter Island head that Feast carries on his shoulders, fracturing them both. Combined, the cast’s performances are as unpredictable and dazzling as a box of fireworks thrown on a bonfire.
But Bolam’s strongest accomplishment is the wise decision to put Ridley’s gutter-gorgeous poetry centre stage. Even if, plot-wise, the revelations are a little too neatly schematic to ever astonish, and even if it’s unabashedly moralistic, frequently obscene- there’s still the queasy joy of witnessing each character transcending the urban ‘ruins’ in disparate but equally desperate post-traumatic fantasies. It’s also, of course, a big jolly blood bath of bathos – often giddily funny even as the collective miseries stack up. As Flood says, “No-one has the ability to laugh at their misfortunes like the women of the East End..” and in this blazing revenge romp, it’s the women who laugh hardest, longest and last.