King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 28th October 2021
“it somehow speaks of the horror and confusion of trauma, unflinching love in the face of howling pain, and above all, it’s incredibly playful and funny and sweet”
Having read his books as a kid and studied his plays in college, seeing a Philip Ridley play at a pub theatre in Angel seems absolutely mad to me. Like having Michelle Roux working at your local caf, or Radiohead doing a gig in your neighbour’s basement. That said, the Kings Head is no ordinary pub theatre, and Philip Ridley no ordinary playwright.
And, stubbornly transgressive as he is, it seems entirely apt that in Ridley’s latest production, at moments of palpable, almost violent silence, you can hear a faint R n’ B playlist, glasses clinking and raised voices trickling in from the bar behind.
The design (Kit Hinchcliffe) is tantalisingly bare: a shiny white floor and plain white backdrop, along with costumes of white tops and grey trousers. No furniture or small props or even a button on a cardi to fiddle with. Just two characters, Man and Woman, and their rich, almost impenetrable fantasy existence.
I feel myself putting off talking about the actual play itself because I don’t really know how to describe it. At once a game of ‘Fantasy Yes’- we’ve been shipwrecked, says man. Yes, with only hundreds of monkeys for company, says woman. Yes, except that time a giant serpent came and ate me whole and I stabbed it to death from the insides, says man. Yes, says woman, that was my great, great aunt, and I too have serpent blood in me. Yes, well, says man, I’ve led aliens into battle against their enemies, and so the monkeys think I am the messiah. And so on. This, spliced with intensely sexual but equally opaque talk of lubricated grenades and castrating garden sheers, and a surprisingly normal story about an eighteenth birthday party, makes up this seventy-minute straight-through. Despite this sounding unbearably inaccessible, through its opacity, it somehow speaks of the horror and confusion of trauma, unflinching love in the face of howling pain, and above all, it’s incredibly playful and funny and sweet.
In his programme notes, director Max Marrion talks about how skilled our two principals, Adeline Waby and Jaz Hutchins, are at dealing with Ridley’s particular flavour of language, story and imagery. This is mildly put considering their ability to express both humour and passion in this otherwise abstruse text. They embody both the poetic and the realistic; unafraid to be ridiculous, fighting with invisible swords, jumping from one invisible rock to the next, giving each other explosive orgasms with grenades. Equally, they’re two awkward teenagers getting ready for a party, nervously flirting and dancing like idiots. Their chemistry is complicated; it feels full of experience and genuine intimacy.
Ben Lerner once said of John Ashbery’s poetry that while reading, “they always felt as if they were making sense, but when you looked up from the page, it was impossible to say what sense has been made.” I’d say the same of Tender Napalm. There’s no way for me to convey its message, except to tell you to see it and try to explain it yourself.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Mark Senior
King’s Head Theatre until 20th November
Other shows reviewed this year by Miriam: