The Ridleys review: a double bill of urban horror stories
Philip Ridley’s Tonight with Donny Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle feature media monsters
Tonight with Donny Stixx: Rex Ryan in Philip Ridley’s play
Something like that trajectory happens in this presentation of a Theatre Upstairs production at the Peacock, moving the operation from its home above a pub to the national theatre’s basement studio.
Like the young characters in each play, it’s hard to say whether the identities of both theatres have been furthered or compromised by the opportunity. Theatre Upstairs, for instance, is a new-writing venue whose productions are rarely more than an hour long. Here they stage two existing plays by an established writer over the course of almost three, which would otherwise have been a squeeze. Yet the effect, for two confined urban horror stories, is to have more room than to know what to do with.
In the first play, Tonight with Donny Stixx, we find Donny (Rex Ryan), a teenage amateur magician, incarcerated for a mass shooting. The space designed by Naomi Faughnan resembles the receding grey corridor of an especially inhumane prison. To up the ante, Karl Shiels, the plays’ director, initially has Ryan sitting, hunched and naked, on the stone floor. Is this to amplify unease, or has Donny somehow been imprisoned in a North Korean gulag?
That foregrounds a concern already present in Ridley’s work: are these depictions of abuse, mental disarray and shocking brutality rooted in an east London realism, sensationalised for dramatic effect, or merely gratuitous? Donny’s story is absorbingly told, a child indulged by his suffocating mother and giddy for fame, but gauche to the point of autism. (At one point of awkward intimacy he glances at a park to see “nine small trees and 33 shrubs”.)
Ryan gives Donny, himself a halting performer, a braying laugh, a series of physical tics and a racing, logorrhoeic delivery – a performance of sustained intensity that Shiels is not inclined to rein in. The sly point of Ridley’s play is that Donny’s audience, from his enabling mother to a snarky YouTube jury, is to blame for stoking his excesses. Here, Donny seems similarly encouraged.
Something like that happens in Dark Vanilla Jungle, an equally accelerating report by a young teenaged girl, Andrea, besotted with an older man and unwittingly groomed to be the rape victim of a paedophile ring. The syncopated rhythm of Katie Honan’s performance suggests a character both oblivious and obtuse, but the effect is to leave her strangely alienated from an audience’s sympathy. (It’s strange to hear laughter when Andrea imagines being gang raped on a bus, as though the horror of her earlier gang rape in a squalid flat had left so faint an impression.)
Such may be the consequence of the production’s fixation on style, though, handsomely integrated in music and sound, by Derek Conaghy and Alan Darcy, and as supple as Eoin Byrne’s lighting. In stressing the bravura qualities of a performance piece, though, from theatrical stammers and breakneck torrents of language to slo-mo carnage and physical convulsions, it makes the characters seem unreal. If the plays are related at all, it is because both figures understand they have been distorted into media monsters, unfathomable urban bogeymen performing unspeakable acts. These sensationalised depictions don’t offer much of a counterbalance.
Runs until Saturday, January 26th