Having read about ‘The Fastest Clock in the Universe’ before I’d come to Oxford, I was aware that the play was designed to shock and provoke audience reaction. The second in Philip Ridley’s ‘East End Gothic Trilogy’, it is considered one of the major works in the development of the so-called ‘in-yer-face’ theatre which changed the face of acting in the 1990s. And yet, I don’t think I was prepared for quite how ‘in yer face’ this production is.
Transforming the BT into the grimy corner of an abandoned fur factory in East London, this play explores the nature of ageing, society’s reaction to it, and our desperate desire to stay young forever. And it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. With an unchanging set, and nowhere to run, the play generates a claustrophobic, intense atmosphere that is sustained throughout the performance.
The play centres around the (supposedly) young Cougar Glass played by Jack Morris, who is celebrating his 19th birthday party- again. Each year he lures someone to his birthday party, gets them drunk, and then forces himself on them. Why? An attempt at staying virile and young? Or just for pure, animalistic pleasure? We are not told- we are only shown the harrowing spectacle and left to interpret it for ourselves.
Morris capture’s Cougars lethargic, cruel, despotic nature brilliantly, manipulating Captain Tock played by Max Reynolds, the nervous, subservient flat mate (or is that servant?) Morris and Reynolds expertly portray the complicated relationship between the two characters; as Morris darkly warns: “I need you, remember”. Initially appearing morally dichotomised, Reynolds gradually unravels his benign old-man character through intense, longing gazes towards Cougar, his need to howl like a wild beast from the window of their flat, and then there’s the story he tells at the party, which, we realise with growing dread, bears an all too clear correlation to the real story being played out in front of us.
Perhaps the dialogue between the two men in the first half carried on a little too long, but the appearance of Cheetah Bee, a wizened old lady obsessed by television played by Alexandra Ackland-Snow, introduced a new locus of interest, and shortly after Foxtrot and Sherbet arrive and the tension skyrockets.
Foxtrot, the fifteen-year-old boy lured to the lair this year – intriguingly played by Emily Smith in an interesting gender-bending twist – brings with him a surprise, his fiancée, Sherbet, played by India Opzoomer. Opzoomer’s character carries some much-needed comic relief, yet the kind that makes you laugh, only to immediately wonder whether you should have been laughing. For the second half we are plunged into darkness both literally and figuratively as the lights go out and all we can see is the cake knife glinting in Morris’s threatening grip. And then, in the words of the director himself, “it all goes to hell”.
The final expertly choreographed fight scene leaves us stunned, wondering what it could all mean. Is it a subtle message to our age-obsessed society, or homage to raw violence, or simply a fantastical image of some dystopian community? Credit must be given equally to director Alexander Hartley and the talented cast who carried the performance off with a maturity all the more astounding given Morris, Reynolds and Opzoomer are only in their first year on the Oxford drama scene.
This play is brutal, violent, and dark, staying with the viewer long after the final bow, still trying to puzzle over who, if anyone was in the right. And perhaps this is why it has been termed ‘in yer face’ theatre, only by being nose to nose with the actors, having the haunting music ringing in our ears, and sitting silently as the horror plays out can you feel the full force of Ridley’s writing.
Image // Daniella Shreir