Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 12 March 2015

Radiant Vermin

Soho Theatre ⋄ 10th March – 12th April 2014

Renovation, renovation, renovation.

Poppy Corbett

‘Hell, I still want more.’

Every morning Colin calls me. Then Ben. Then Michael. Colin offers me something really fantastic. Ben wants feedback on his performance. Michael can do me a dirty deal. I flirt with them all. I lie to them all. Each conversation leaves me feeling unclean. But it’s fine, because it’s all for our dream home, you see. The ‘For Sale’ board sprung up outside our house yesterday and now I’m bargaining with every Lambeth estate agent for the perfect property. Hell, I’ll do whatever it takes.

This was a fitting mind-set in which to see Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, a savage satire about the lengths a young couple go to for their dream home. Philip Ridley has written a comedy! Surely six words the London theatre scene never dreamed it would whisper, but words I relish as a Ridley-fan. Let’s not forget, children, this is a playwright that Charles Spencer suggested was ‘turned on by his own sick fantasies.’ Ridley’s work may be dark, but there’s often humour to be found. This production retains the hallmarks of a Ridley classic; a fast-paced modern fairy-tale that burrows into the dark wormholes of the imagination.

Radiant Vermin opens with Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) and Jill (Gemma Whelan) introducing themselves. Jill’s dressed in a sunny yellow dress and Ollie in a bright blue jumper – they look ideal candidates for A Place In The Sun. But they’re here to explain terrible things they did, convinced we’ll understand. Established from the start, this connection with the audience is key. This play demands our collusion. Ollie and Jill need us.

There you are, children!’ comes a shout. It’s Miss Dee (Amanda Daniels), a mysterious woman who offers them a free tumbledown house by suggesting their renovations will regenerate the area. The sparkle of their property will spread until the whole street radiates. There’s something fishy about Miss Dee: her omniscient knowledge of the couple’s history is unnerving and her shoes are just slightly too shiny to not be suspicious. The pair don’t notice, sign her Faustian bargain and move in. A few nights later, Ollie accidently kills a homeless intruder and in a Jesus-in-the-tomb way the man’s body disappears and is miraculously resurrected ‘as a designer kitchen.’ (It’s magical realism: go with it.) It transpires that in order to renovate the couple must murder… the homeless become homes.

The play takes time to warm up and whilst this sounds a criticism, it aptly mirrors the characters’ situation and the experience of trawling the housing market. You wait for ages, nothing happens and then everything happens so fast you can barely keep up. In this way, the structure of the piece mirrors its content. Things appear from nowhere – ‘BZZZZZ!’ ‘Champagne!’ – and the story moves faster than the characters – ‘It’s five weeks later’. The pace matches the stress of attempting to speedily prance up the property ladder. Similarly, Ridley’s dialogue appears verbose but this is reflective of the bombardment of adverts and estate agent chatter our money-mad world is steeped in. The tautology of the writing reflects Ridley’s interest in excess in all its forms.

David Mercatali’s direction is tight, precise choreography. The play demands two styles of grotesque comedy and emotional realism and Mercatali ensures his actors hit both. Gemma Whelan, no stranger to Ridley’s worlds (remember the outstanding Dark Vanilla Jungle?) is an excellent Jill; her moral struggle and glee for greed makes us both sympathise and chastise. Sean Michael Verey reminds of a young Del-Boy with his ‘he who dares wins’ attitude and cunning schemes to provide for his family. Their comic timing is admirable as they impressively navigate exhausting routines where not a beat is dropped. As their murderous actions take their toll, the acting’s powerful. Amanda Daniels plays the enigmatic Miss Dee and the homeless Kay. Like Jill, we are taken in by both convincing performances.

Everything takes place on William Reynold’s bright white set, a bare space full of potential just like the couple’s home. Apart from Miss Dee’s literally glittering contracts and her Mary Poppins’ carpet bag of tricks, there are no props. These sparse design choices perfectly compliment the underlying content of the play: there IS no dream home, it’s conjured imaginatively, all that is solid melts into air.

The absence of a set is necessary because we don’t need to see the dream home. The play is not really about the housing crisis – that’s just the clever metaphor that houses the real crux. One of the final scenes, the ‘birthday party from hell’, neatly ties the plot with the symbolism. Underneath suburbia’s superficial small talk Ridley deftly weaves phrases including ‘third world’, ‘slave labour’, ‘electrocution’ and ‘concentration camps’. The action happens so fast you barely hear but Ridley’s point is crystal clear. Beneath our society’s charming veneer lies the exploitation of slaves, the horror of BZZZZZ! the electric chair, and the ovens of Auschwitz. The oxymoronic ‘Radiant Vermin’ reveals how below all that glitters, there’s rarely gold. It is impossible to be ‘good’ in a flawed world and the play warns it’s easy to bypass morals for the promise of better for our ‘children’. Ridley makes a powerful case for how evil acts are inherited by the next generation.

Must dash now children, the photographer’s arrived to make our house look dreamy for prospective buyers. Ben’s phoning about latest percentage prices and Michael’s emailed the details of a lovely property. Looks promising, but hell, I still want more.

Painting Pictures with Words: an interview with Gemma Whelan


Radiant Vermin Show Info

Produced by Metal Rabbit Productions and Supporting Wall

Directed by David Mercatali

Written by Philip Ridley

Cast includes Amanda Daniels, Sean Michael Verey, Gemma Whelan




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