There’s a section in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking where Ayckbourn describes a cast as they saw their beautifully created naturalistic set for the first time, treading across the stage gingerly, admiring the detail. Eventually one of them asked, “Are we allowed to move anything?”
Actors can take time to become comfortable when they move out of the safe space of the rehearsal room onto a picture-box set guarded by a DSM and a tech crew, corralled by electrical tape crosses. But Piranha Heights,first produced at Soho Theatre in 2008, demonstrates that it is not only the actors and production team that can get precious about a well-appointed set.
DEM Productions have transformed the inside of Old Red Lion black box for the inaugural production of Stewart Pringle’s first season as Artistic Director, pink-wallpapering it into a housing association flat filled with knick-knacks and photos. The play opens with two middle-aged brothers, Alan and Terry, fighting over the space in a very familiar theatrical fashion. Mother is dead. Only one of them can have the flat. Alan wants it for his son Garth, maybe. Terry wants to turn it into a commune, perhaps. Their witty back-and-forth grows more barbed, their accusations revealing that this is the latest in a long line of fraternal disputes. Terry’s disrespect of the flat is restricted to a playful prank, an overturned trinket. Into this set-up as traditional as its fourth-wall, enter three of Philip Ridley’s truly Technicolor creations – the Disney-gibberish speaking, niqab-wearing Lily, who carries a doll which she refers to as her baby, her short-fused partner Medic who recites the violent poetry of broken bottles, and Garth, Alan’s son, killer of animals, who describes his birth from the belly of the whale in Pinocchio, and speaks to ‘Mr Green’, his own invisible Jiminy Cricket.
Max Barton’s technically ambitious production takes off like a rocket in the second half, with compelling and frankly creepy performances. Barton’s excellent turn is to have these interlopers not just disrespect the place of the setting – as they come to blows in the flat – but also the place of the set. Lily picks up audience members’ jackets as she wanders around the flat/stage. Medic gets too close to us, sweat on his face, cold brutality in his eyes. Garth stands on the front row to speak to ‘Mr Green’ in the audience. Their intrusion on our space immediately causes the audience to identify with the flat. The picture-box sanctity has been set up, and suddenly these unreal people are destroying it. When the armchair goes flying for the first time, we feel it. When the space is threatened even further in the second half, it hurts even more, because in Barton’s production, we are not just an audience – we haunt the flat. We are the ghost of Alan and Terry’s mother. We are the ghost of a theatrical consumer that preferred barbed bickering between brothers to characters that deny their fathers and refuse their name, pure will to power – or immaculate deception.
The stylistic scope of the play itself, moving from near kitchen-sink working class tradition to ultraviolence and invented language, means that is constantly on the verge of becoming ridiculous as it shifts – but in fact creating a series of genre expectations and subsequently defying them is part of the unsettling power of this text. As unfamiliar as the styles are (found together in a single work, that is) the play itself has so many plot and character references to Pinter, and specifically The Homecoming that I find it hard not to conceive of Piranha Heights as being in conversation with it. Two working-class brothers fight over a house without a female presence – enter a female presence who constructs her entire identity piecemeal out of what will best protect and advance her: Piranha Heights’ horrible conceit is that Lily feels safest swaddled in Disney soundbites, orientalism and an invented history as a war refugee – but by the end of the play, like Ruth in The Homecoming she has insinuated herself a new identity, at the centre of the family.
By contrast Garth and Medic’s discovery of kindred spirits in each other – a sexual awakening and a terrifying prospect, as they egg each other on to wake the people with bombs – feels at moments like a gruesome take on The Birthday Party’s Goldberg and McCann. But though it recalls Pinter, its younger, brighter, less representational characters feel like they could shrug off any generational claim. Ridley noted in his conversation with Natasha Tripney that he was surprised when writing the play “it takes a left turn and goes somewhere else” – there probably hasn’t been a play since Sarah Kane’s Blasted that has a bigger gap between where it starts and where it goes to, and is willing to bring the building down with it.
Here Be Monsters: Philip Ridley on revisiting Piranha Heights