“Sarcasm will get you shot”
Philip Ridley’s ‘moment’ in London continues with this Greenhouse Theatre Company production of Mercury Fur, which follows the Arcola’s Pitchfork Disney and the Southwark Playhouse’s current Shivered and forthcoming return of Tender Napalm. This desolate tale of a society, not so different from our own, on the edge of collapse is often brutally, crushingly dark as a group of young adults make an existence for themselves in any way they can, even in the most horrifying of ways.
Tucked away in a derelict council flat, brothers Elliot and Darren are setting up for a party organised by the ruthless Spinx to fulfil the request of the ‘Party Guest’. But as it becomes clear what kind of event has been arranged and what terrible desires are being sated, the relentless drive to the disturbing climax takes an appalling twist. But even in the midst of this dystopian, drug-fuelled nightmare, Ridley offers us glimmers of hope: buds of love, friendship, tenderness poke their way through the charred remnants of this world but have to fight incredibly hard.
I’ve not been the biggest fan of Ridley’s work previously, his tendency towards the lyrical has felt closer to rambling for me, but Mercury Fur felt considered, concise, coiled. And Ned Bennett’s production is intensified beautifully by the intimacy of the Old Red Lion, a tiny space in which the heat is turned up almost unbearably both literally and metaphorically. The young cast pull off performances of great maturity: Ciarán Owens and Frank C Keogh’s sibling relationship is beautifully detailed, their mutual dependence shifting around but always true; Ben Dilloway’s Spinx balances the cold-hearted businessman with a delicate compassion for his ‘Duchess’, and Henry Lewis portrays the complete amorality of the sleazy Party Guest extremely well. Top acting honours though go to Olly Alexander’s Naz, a slip of a boy whose warmth and buoyancy is truly affecting.
My only tiny doubt as I left the theatre was a feeling that the latter stages of the play are perhaps not investigated as thoroughly as they might have been as a hell of a lot is compressed in by the playwright whose writing remains so very intense and tightly coiled. Eardrum-quivering noise accompanies vicious action which undoubtedly evokes the most visceral of feelings, but this seemed to work against the dramatic intelligence of what had preceded. I felt a little emotionally manipulated where I would have preferred to hear what was being yelled but where this explosion of emotion left me feeling the tiniest bit cynical, it lifted much of the audience to an instant standing ovation. On final reflection though, I have no qualms about recommending this as an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre and with just one week left, don’t leave it too late.
Lastly, whether by accident or by design, the confluence of Ridley plays has also demonstrated an additional strength of the fringe scene in London. Creating a mini-season (of sorts) of a playwright’s work offers a brilliant opportunity to further explore and experience that canon at precisely the time that the inspiration is strongest. Plus with the plays being put on by different companies at different houses, there’s a freshness of alternative visions that might not have come from a single theatre mounting a retrospective. So coming out of Mercury Fur, one still has the opportunity to see Shivered before it closes and book for the return of Tender Napalm: will I be doing either of these things, only time will tell!