The Pitchfork Disney: the name itself betrays something of the twisting dreamscape fairytale Philip Ridley’s 1991 play offers up for our delight – and equal disgust.
As Presley, Alex Fleming-Brown’s face shifts constantly between sweet charm and threatening, even malicious glee, twisting in and out through his maze-like monologues much like the snake-filled narratives he describes. In fact, all the actors carry their dialogue brilliantly. It is easy to get lost in the twists and turns of the many narrative monologues which seem to tumble inevitably out of these volatile characters, but they manage their audience expertly in their switches between emotion and horror, edging into humour and then back again just as quickly. We lose ourselves in each character’s troubled imagination – Lou Lou Curry’s Hayley raising the emotional stakes in the first scene I saw, with both twins alerting us to the psychological discomfort just on the edge of the explosive, surreal imagery.
This all unravels within a disconcerting contrast of threatening monologues and a sickly-sweet set design, dominated by the shiny foil of empty chocolate wrappers, while the chocolate itself drips and churns in an unceasing projection behind the actors, masterminded by filmmaker Immy Done. Designer and assistant director Felix Morrison explains: “We went for a minimal set, interspersed with pieces of colour. We wanted to create a decaying run-down environment which also has elements which externalise the childlike magical nature of the twins’ psyche. The tinsel curtain and the projected window act as portals, from which the ghost-like characters such as Cosmo appear.”
This is a play situated constantly on the brink of imagination and reality, which revels in the discomfort when one inevitably forces its way into the other. The actors push up into one another’s’ faces and then slide away again, and indeed it seems we are never not either recovering from a moment of dramatic climax, or building steadily and ominously toward the next. We feel the shock when Alasdair Linn’s Cosmo’s commanding bombast suddenly concentrates into tight, raw, devilish reality as he approaches the audience. These actors have to work hard, constantly working up the fervour and emotional complexity these moments demand and controlling the uncertain come-downs.
Something Ridley himself has emphasised is this play’s ability to “mean something different” with each new production, and in the current political climate it would certainly be easy to hash out a trite warning from its ominous imagery. “We actually decided to move away from some specific contemporary angle,” comments director Bertie Harrison-Broninski, however: “it felt a bit superficial to just make it about Brexit or something, it doesn’t accommodate the diverse themes of the play. So we made a play where it is very difficult to pin down any specific identity; it’s detached and lost, like the children.”
‘Ancient children with chocolate, ancient children with no vocation.’ So Cosmo taunts a terrified and enthralled Presley, but his recurring engagement with his audience makes it almost impossible not to feel that somehow he is taunting us too. Two scenes are perhaps not quite enough, in such a twisting, testing, and truly surreal play, to see for sure what the focal point is around which this dreamscape drama spins. Nevertheless, this careful handling of an incredibly demanding play promises to be a thrilling and exciting piece of theatre. Not to be missed.