Director Jack Saville and writer James P Mannion, the duo behind last year’s Surprise, return with another seemingly familiar tale which plays fast and loose with the rules of reality. Cemented by impressive lead performances, Ridley’s Choice is a multi-layered experiment with the play’s format and is certain to challenge any preconceptions one might have previously held.
It’s hardly the most adventurous beginning: struggling artist, sick of voyeuristic and internet-obsessed “society,” secludes himself in an idyllic woodland dream world. The character tropes are all there, too: George Varley’s writer Ridley, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and Moleskine notebook; Ali Ackland-Snow’s jargon-spouting, “one-hundred-percent” tabloid hack Polly.
But Varley’s embodiment of this pathetic and tragic figure, his delusions apparent from the outset and hammered home as the narrative progresses, is quietly powerful, particularly so in scenes with his dynamic and domineering alter ego Clive (Archie Thomson). The self-consciously Waldenesque dream of rural, technophobic isolation presents the audience with a dilemma: are we on the side of Ridley, head firmly lodged up his own arse, or the hyenas who ruthlessly dismantle the façade he’s built?
In this post-Leveson world, there are some sly nods at the dangers of caricaturing. “The media – are they the devil?” an interviewer demands of the quaking Ridley. In a similar vein it seems as though Mannion can’t help but throw in a few digs at the critics; we learn that Ridley’s exile may not be entirely self-imposed.
One has to wonder how far the resemblance between the writer-creator and writer-creation extends – it all gets a little too ‘meta’ when the entrance of Ridley’s daughter interrupts his remark that, in his own play, “maybe a character arrives once in a while to drive the plot along”.
In fact a little more emphasis on Ridley’s family would not be amiss. The scene with his daughter Lucy (Chloe Wall) is genuinely affecting, and perhaps slightly thrown awry by the porous barriers between reality and invention throughout the play.
As our hero slumps in his chair at the close, it is hard to ascertain with any certainty how much of the drama may have played out in his mind alone. That said, there really are some fantastic moments – the interrogative interview, in which Ridley is skewered by the three-man news team, is frenetically fast-paced and violent, an enjoyable counterpoint to the protagonist’s pseudo-intellectual musings.
While Varley’s performance is the emotional fulcrum of the piece, it’s these group scenes (and especially Thomson’s bullish inquisitor) which raise it to brilliance. Interested in a chaotic exploration of insanity and artifice? There’s only one choice to make.
Ridley’s Choice will play at the Burton Taylor Studio from 25th-29th November