It’s my second day in the sparklingly dark world of Philip Ridley as I continue to watch his series of monologues written for Tramp, The Beast Will Rise. And this section turns out to have two of the very best pieces so far. What really strikes home is the sheer range of the scenarios which Ridley conjures all, in one way or another, providing responses to the pandemic, lockdown, survival and mental health.
Telescope is a straightforward tale with a dark edge. On the surface it’s the story of an ordinary family with its inevitable share of strife, on this occasion caused by dad bringing home a telescope so that they can “see Mars”. Mum and daughter are incredulous but nevertheless help with the construction but as a result the former becomes ill. The daughter, who is doing the narrating, is played by Unique Spencer; she clearly has some issues which are lying buried but threaten to break free and towards the end do so.
She seems to be paranoid about the outside world (the dead body with the half-chewed face on the common doesn’t help) so the prospect of viewing another planet fills her with an unspoken horror. Ridley’s writing in this piece is sharp and focused with a particularly pleasing line in original similes, e.g. “her breathing sounds like a dog growling in a submarine” and Spencer’s increasing mania in the delivery makes this a rewarding watch.
At just two minutes, the shortest piece, River, consists of 60 seconds looking at a front door. Lucy Gape then opens it, looks nervously up and down, utters a brief couple of lines, carries out an action and closes the door again. And that’s it. Ridley’s work often has a poetic quality and, in those terms, this is clearly a haiku with all the not quite graspable mystery which that implies. The spoken lines (more or less) echo the standard haiku pattern. It’s a short, simple piece and an interesting contrast to the claustrophobic locked down worlds presented in much of the series – there is even a note of unexpected optimism about it.
From the shortest to the longest piece (56 minutes). Eclipse is an absolute delight as a piece of storytelling and as a character study from Mike Evans. Set in a Ridley alternative universe there is a virus on the loose but, deliciously the writer has turned the tables and this one affects the young more severely than the old. It causes vision problems, even blindness and eventually death and has led to recriminations against the elderly (anyone over 70); they are being culled.
It is also a society in which the church, which should be helping, has turned fully capitalist and cultivated an ugly and repressive regime – shades of both The Handmaid’s Tale and Philip Pullman’s Magisterium here. The central character has lost his home to the church (for reasons that it would be a shame to divulge here) and finds himself in the boarding house of Hampton Cyrus – this property is also under threat from the religious authorities. Together with a young streetwise girl, Toxie, they set about helping Cyrus to save his home and business.
These characters have more than a whiff of Dickens about them – as do the boiler-suited, bowler- hatted Lady Blitzer, the female priest Mother Lupin, the mysterious and tattooed Mr TenOne and the talented artist Jolyon. The story mostly unfolds chronologically and is related while Evans drinks tea and munches biscuits. Evans has created a character who is beautifully portrayed – an ex-teacher of creative writing (he deplores cliché) and art history. He is both eloquent and somewhat debonair, though clearly masking a good deal of inner pain. He starts out by being rather affected but by the end of the piece is deeply affecting. This play is a triumphant vignette and even though much longer than most of the other pieces it is never less than interesting.
It’s back to short and sweet for Performance with Steve Furst giving a performance of a performer who can’t quite get his act together to give a performance – at least not of the type he sets out to give. For he has no access to atmospheric lighting, no costume, no props, no scenery no… well you get the drift. The expression “What a performance” indicates a lot of fuss about nothing and in very short order Furst embodies the saying; he goes from the demeanour of the consummate professional to someone having a histrionic tantrum. He pulls himself together but then…. There is a nice ending to this airy confection which contains just the one idea, but which delivers it well.
Star is a remarkable piece of work with a blistering performance by Joseph Potter. He plays a young man “loved up” with his boyfriend Keon to whom he has just become engaged. Everything centres on the love of his life and we follow them on outings to a nightclub, to Epping Forest and to Victoria Park. Keon goes off to get ice cream and doesn’t return. A frantic (and I mean frantic) search ensues, and it turns out that Keon has been hospitalised along with many other people – some new and terribly swift sickness seems to have descended on humankind. The narrator also becomes ill, whether this be with the new disease or he has a breakdown is not clear, and he is left muttering a single word which forms a really chilling ending. The pace set in this monologue is ferocious and unforgiving and although Potter stumbles a couple of times the dialogue is so relentless with words phrases and whole ideas being repeated, that any errors are instantly forgivable. The character starts off as rather annoying but the end of the thirty minutes he has become totally mesmerising and tragically heart breaking. Potter is set to appear in Ridley’s new one-man piece The Poltergeist in a couple of weeks’ time. If the experience is anything like this, I can’t wait.