When in the real world the white man is out to reassert his ‘natural’ dominance (and I’m giving Hare and Stoppard the side-eye along with the more obvious plague of awful), The Pitchfork Disney plays as a worryingly alluring lifestyle choice. Philip Ridley’s creepily co-dependent twins, Hayley and Presley, have locked themselves away from world since the disappearance/death of their parents ten years previously. Alone, isolated and infantilised, they’ve submerged themselves in a sea of childhood memories – both good and bad. Living on a diet of chocolate and prescription drugs, they feed each others’ seemingly irrational fears about what’s out there until these terrors invade their every waking minute.
First performed at the Bush in 1991, Ridley’s debut play is seen as being at the vanguard of the ‘In Yer Face’ theatre that provoked audience walkouts and critical hand wringing. Today, more than 25 years later, it’s a different beast. While the world is arguably worse than in 1991, the play seems gentler or, more alarmingly, less fantastical. With its shock-horror power diluted by foreknowledge, a savvy seen-it-all audience and an oddly domesticated setting, the Strays’ denial of the real feels like a valid, if not a valuable, reaction.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the staging is a notably dialled-down from his razzle-dazzle West End efforts (don’t worry, there’s still red sparkly jacket revealed with enviable panache by Tom Rhys Harries’ Cosmo Disney). And, at first, Soutra Gilmour’s set seems to miss the mark. With the long, rectangular room littered in traverse with shabby-chic furniture on which the audience sits, it’s more cosy than fetid. We could’ve all sat around and got stoned (and, well, one of the characters kind of does). I even found myself eyeing up an anglepoise lamp and admiring the on-trend industrial lighting. The breeze of Shoreditch’s self-conscious cool can be felt across the neck and the twins, too, look more than passably presentable. It doesn’t fit with The Pitchfork Disney in my head but, as the 90 minutes motor on in a frenzy of words and surreal images, it starts to make sense. This world feels closer, more real. It could be out there in the existing world as the line between truth and fantasy is blurred by a barrage of emotive language, the grotesque meaning of which is normalised by the soothing beauty of their sounds.
It’s small wonder the surging monologues are so popular at auditions: they are a tongue-tangling treat swerving through untruth and fantasy, revelling in the joy and terror of language and its world-building potential. Entrancing but ultimately meaningless, they are microcosm of the play as whole. Yet, while The Pitchfork Disney’s plot resists logical explanation, it’s open to multiple readings. The Strays are both the tormented and the tormentors. Their overblown, illogical fears lead them to invite in something much worse through their own front door, while Presley, in his final fabulous flight of fancy, claims to have caused a nuclear holocaust to save his own life – he is the last of everything. Transpose him with ‘the white man’, and we’re considerably closer to home.
Tom Rhys Harries is excruciatingly perfectly cast and a pleasure to watch as the beautiful, cockroach-chomping monster Cosmo Disney, turning in a both mentally and physically balletic performance. Despite spending most of the play semi-conscious, Hayley Squires does more than enough at the start – spitting forth her contrary sentences – to live long in the memory, while George Blagden as her confused twin soars during his wild dream monologue.
It’s not a comfortable evening for the brain or the bum but The Pitchfork Disney is a telling lesson that horror lies not in what’s around us, but in choosing to look away from it. But I still might go and tell myself a soothing story about how comforting the end of the world is going to be. It’s an option.
The Pitchfork Disney is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 18th March 2017. Click here for more details.