Philip Ridley is now often credited with kick-starting in-yer-face theatre with his first play The Pitchfork Disney, premiered at the Bush in 1991. Raw, provocative and challenging in form as well as content, it hits you right between the eyes with a full-frontal assault on your innermost anxieties. Edward Dick’s visceral production at the Arcola keeps the pulses throbbing in this dark fairy tale of nightmarish imaginings.
The play focuses on the quasi-incestuous relationship between twenty-something twins Presley and Haley, with the fitting surname of Stray, who have lived alone together in the family home for ten years since their parents mysteriously either died or left them. Living on a diet of chocolate and sleeping pills (plus the ‘medicine’ in which Presley dips Haley’s dummy to sedate her when she has panic attacks), the pair bicker and tell stories, as they fantasise that they are the only survivors of a nuclear war. However, their hermetic existence is punctured when Presley lets in the attractive but disturbing Cosmo Disney and his menacingly masked henchman Pitchfork Cavalier.
As always with Ridley, storytelling here is a way of coming to terms with deeply held dreads and desires, as memories transmute into fantasies, so that what is real and what is imagined get mixed up in vicarious excitement. Black humour punctuates a tense atmosphere of latent sexual violence, sometimes expressed in monologues of poetic, image-laden brilliance, like a psychotic form of magical realism. Dick (who also directed a revival of Ridley’s second play The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the Hampstead Theatre in 2009) hits all the nerve endings, while Bob Bailey’s squalid, barred-door set design and Malcolm Rippeth’s dingy lighting set the mood well.
Chris New’s twitchily neurotic Presley is drawn to danger like a moth to a naked light bulb, confronting his subconscious fears with a gleeful shiver. He seems to be at once protector and prison-keeper of his drugged-up sister Haley, played by Mariah Gale with childlike obsessive intensity. Misfits star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s charismatic Cosmo Disney, bare-chested beneath a glittering red jacket, is a live-cockroach-eating charlatan with the venom of a beautiful snake. And Steve Guadino gives the almost mute, leather-bondage-wearing Pitchfork the lumbering threat of Frankenstein’s creature.
Twenty-one years on, The Pitchfork Disney has come into its maturity, while still buzzing with plenty of youthful vigour. It will be fascinating to compare it to Ridley’s new play Shivered which opens at the Southwark Playhouse next month.