Recent estimates suggest that by 2018 there will be at least one Philip Ridley play running in every theatre in Britain, from Aberdeen to Lands End we will be one nation under Ridley, staggering faintly from one merciless hammer blow to the next. With Shivered continuing his impressive run of defiant new drama, this may be no bad thing. As the claustrophobic fever-dream of The Pitchfork Disney comes to the end of its triumphant revival at the Arcola, the Southwark Playhouse hosts his expansive, fragmented but admirably ruthless new play.
Set against the same post-manufacturing malaise as David Eldridge’s In Basildon, Ridley’s play visits two families in Essex new-town Draylingstone over 12 terrible years, as their lives are twisted into freakish shapes by misfortune and an England which has forgotten they exist. Lyn (Olivia Poulet) and Mikey (Simon Lenagan) have lost their eldest son to an Islamic execution squad, and the beheading video is all over YouTube. Their younger boy Ryan is playing crypto-zoologist with his best mate Jack, hunting for monsters in the waste-groundaround the abandoned factory. Jack spends his evenings watching snuff clips on the internet and bathing his obese mother, a fraudster medium living on a diet of Bacardi and misery.
Ridley has shattered the chronology of their story, we leaf backwards and forwards through time: tears turn to laughter and then back to tears again, characters are drawn together and then thrust apart, and rather than descending into horror we chance upon it, it catches us unawares. Form reflects content, as Ridley’s characters ruminate on the nature of causality and the process of verification and justification that hardens rumour into truth and chaos into the narrative of their lives. Both Ryan and his father fall back onto the paranormal to escape the pain of normality, they hunt for monsters in the polluted fields and UFO’s in the sodium sky. Ryan talks about ‘illusory contours’, the connections our minds draw between disparate objects in a futile search for patterns, and Ridley’s play challenges this habit. His characters scrabble for reason and purpose, they want to believe, but we’re ultimately reminded the lights they see in the sky and the logic they find in their lives are tragically deceptive.
These ideas are potent, and they are brilliantly worked in the play’s best moments, but their failure to cohere, however intentional, leaves Shivered an often frustrating whole. Ridley flits between scenes of coruscating naturalism and heightened surreality with an emphasis on disjunction rather than harmony, numbing the dramatic tension. Ridley continuously defers dramatic and thematic closure, and while it leaves the edges of Shivered pleasingly sharp, it also makes for a fragmented and unsatisfying narrative. Draylingstone is a grim microcosm of the modern world, torn by war and riddled with camera-phone atrocities and snivelling capitalism, but these ideas are presented rather than developed.
Scenes such as Ryan’s gruesome verbal assault on his mother, as she snaps his pencil leads in petty revenge, are so skilfully wrought that you have to hold back the urge to applaud on the spot, but when the play finally closes there is a nagging emptiness, a disappointment. Not so much less than the sum of its parts and more a refusal to sum them, Shivered never quite adds up.
Despite this problem, Russell Bolam directs a convincing production with a stunning cast. Poulet is exceptional as the broken mother, with enough sardonic wit to side-step any possibility of pity. Andrew Hawley impresses as carnival shyster Gordy, and if his union with Amanda Daniels’ Evie is an unconvincing piece of plotting, both performers work hard and well to restore credibility. Joseph Drake and Josh Williams have a difficult job playing such young characters, but both rise to the challenge and Williams in particular displays considerable nuance.
Played against a bare stage aided only by Richard Howell’s bleak lighting design and Tom Gibbons’ cavernous soundtrack, the play’s uncluttered presentation allows Ridley’s writing to speak for itself, and if its message is sometimes unclear, it still feels an appropriate response to an increasingly fractured modern England.
Read Exeunt’s interview with Philip Ridley.