Some playwrights click with you instantly, and others just don’t. Philip Ridley is one of the latter for me, my limited experience with his work has not been one that I’ve enjoyed and I’ve struggled to make a connection with what it is he is trying to say. He delights in the darkly poetic and wilfully enigmatic, but I rarely get on with that type of play – the word ‘lyrical’ increasingly strikes fear into my heart. But I do like to test out my limits regularly and so I had no problem booking for The Pitchfork Disney at the Arcola to see if it could change my mind.
Written in 1991, this was Ridley’s first play and heralded the new age of in-yer-face theatre with its harsh outlook and depictions of deep social unease and fantastical violence. Twins Presley and Haley live a sheltered existence in a pokey East London, very rarely venturing out into the real world and subsisting on a limited diet of chocolate bars and pills. As we see how twisted and inter-dependent their relationship has become with each sharing disturbing stories with the other, we find out that their parents are no longer with us and haven’t been for some time. An unexpected knock at the door reveals the mysteriously flamboyant figure of Cosmo Disney who sets about shaking up the brother/sister dynamic as we edge closer to finding out about what happened to their parents, and just who Disney’s associate Pitchfork is.
There’s no denying the commitment of the actors and where Ridley allows them to, they build strong believable connections. Chris New and Mariah Gale make for an uneasily close, troubled sibling relationship, their storytelling speaking of their deep innate, and unspoken, history. And with Disney’s arrival, New works well with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s confident swagger as they each try and peel back layers of understanding about the other without ceding any power, and failing as the dynamic shifts and shifts again. New also deals superbly with an incredibly epic monologue which must have been a bitch to learn.
But to what purpose? I really couldn’t tell you. It’s all so opaque, much is hinted at and suggested, it could even all just be a dream, but the way in which the relentlessly surreal air never abates meant that for me, it became a real trial to get through the show. Once the set-up has been established, there’s little by the way of progression but rather a meandering around which ended up really trying my patience. And it is a little hard to credit that this was considered shocking on first viewing, though perhaps that has more to say about how our society has progressed (or not as the case may be) – people living in isolation, the eating of live bugs, these are things to which we’re now sadly more accustomed and without any accompanying context to illuminate matters, its impact feels dulled.
In more general Arcola news, things are definitely on the up. The front of house area has been widened out so that the entrance foyer and bar both have more room with the box office tucked away into its own little cubbyhole, making it a much more comfortable place to have a coffee or Turkish beer before a show. And Bob Bailey’s set design is the first to come up with a raised stage which is most beneficial for the majority of the audience in the configuration of Studio 1 that is seemingly preferred and has become the default. These may only seem little things but they contribute significantly to the overall experience at the theatre and show that the Arcola are slowly making their new premises work.