Philip Ridley’s new play, Radiant Vermin, is a tour de force of modern drama.
Performed at the Soho Theatre, this production utilised a dramatically pared down set, with only a white floor and a white panelled screen for a backdrop, as if simulating Ridley’s fresh blank page upon which words and performances vividly inscribed themselves, filling the space with colour and vivacity.
As with other Ridley plays, his latest offering is characterised by a mystical, fairy tale atmosphere, turns of the unbelievable and the uncanny structuring the plot, whilst sustaining a sense of being firmly grounded in contemporary reality. Thus the play achieves a somewhat disorientating effect for the audience as they and their disbelief are suspended yet within their own familiar society.
The plot dwells upon the seemingly model couple, Ollie and Jill (perhaps a warped version of the turbulent nursery rhyme figures Jack and Jill?), as their lives are catapulted out of grey obscurity and static deprivation by the mysterious figure of Miss D, played by Amanda Daniels, complete with glittery clipboard. Through an obscure ‘government’ project, they are given the keys to their dream home in an effort to stimulate property growth and affluence in a deprived area, pointedly described as ‘Chernobyl’-esque. Yet their prospects really start to grow (or rather unravel, you decide) upon the accidental killing of an unfortunate homeless man trespassing one night in their new house, his death magically redecorating their kitchen, causing a rapid spiralling effect for the pair’s aspirations, planning more renovations, more murders.
In this way, Radiant Vermin seems to open up the comic potential latent within the word manslaughter, creating an electric tension between fast-paced, witty repartee, Ollie and Jill playing off each other’s self-deprecating humour, and the overtly tragic nature of the play’s themes and content, Ridley exploring and developing the concept of black humour in this challenging piece of new theatre. The three actors superbly manipulated the reactions of the audience in this way into a sense of unnerved confusion. In particular, Jill’s prolonged panic attack, isolated powerfully on the stage, teetered ominously as a gut-wrenching portrayal of her suffocating anxiety, threatening to fall into the realm of exaggerated farce, expertly handled by Gemma Whelan.
All three actors energetically multi-rolled different parts between them, aided by minimal props. The sustained energy and flawless movement of the show as a whole was exemplified through the climactic birthday party scene, where Whelan and her comic counter-part, Sean Michael Verey, switched between four or five different neighbourhood characters each, from stroppy teenager to yummy mummy, in quick succession. This accelerating cascade of voices, characters and comedy was a dramatic feat and triumph to behold, and not one to be quickly forgotten.
Radiant Vermin will send you out of the theatre buzzing with the dramatic energy of the cast’s performance. This play is not only evidence of new comic genius and theatrical talent, but also a hugely thought-provoking piece of theatre, refusing easy definitions or categorical interpretation, toying with its potential as a commentary on the state of the nation, whilst simultaneously seeming to assert its own triviality of action and meaning.
Use the last days of your Easter vacation wisely – go see this show!