“this twisted script and Henley’s gut-wrenching execution are plenty to keep us at home one more night, voraciously glued to the screen”
I first encountered Philip Ridley as a teenager, reading Pitchfork Disney, his 1991 play about an agoraphobic brother and sister who survive on chocolate and horror stories of the outside world. I’d never read anything like it; the strange recipe of graphic and often violent subversion coalescing with playful whimsy and childish naivety. Like Roald Dahl on a nasty come-down.
Ridley doesn’t appear to have changed his tune in his newest play, Tarantula, in which we accompany sweet adolescent Toni on her first real date with a boy she really fancies, and then, rather suddenly, through a harrowing near-death attack and the ensuing trauma it inevitably spawns.
Georgie Henley’s performance is rich and complicated. Unlike most trauma narratives, Henley’s Toni never loses her desire to be liked and likeable, and to maintain a sunny disposition. Rather than descending into shadowy darkness, Toni is desperate to see the light, making the story all the more troubling. Her smile stretches wider and wider until we can hardly see her at all, in her place just a manic plea for everything to be okay.
Ridley has also never shied away from casual domestic subversion and he does so with such ease, it feels crass to bring it up. But it also feels important and worthy of applause, so needs must. In this case it’s Toni’s dad who stays at home with the kids, whilst her mum tries her hand at various jobs. Toni’s older brother, a seeming classic trouble maker who, in someone else’s story would likely continue to represent something nasty and unlikeable, reveals depth and an unexpected self-awareness. And it appears that everyone is fairly sexually fluid and suffers no judgement. None of this is dwelled upon at all, which is what makes it so completely refreshing.
The one-woman format with little to no production – flood lighting becomes spotlighting on occasion, and half way through Henley removes a t-shirt to reveal sportswear – has become fairly commonplace in the past year, and understandably so what with theatres having to constantly change their programming to fit with fresh lockdowns and social distancing. Nonetheless it seems quite brave to do this only a couple of weeks before theatres (hopefully) open as usual, when attention spans are at an all-time low and everyone is so desperate to leave the house, we’re sitting outside restaurants in jumpers and coats, huddling beside outdoor heaters and pretending it’s not just started raining.
But Ridley was never going to have a problem holding the audience’s attention and director Wiebke Green clearly knows that. Whilst two hours is quite a lot to ask of an online audience at the moment, this twisted script and Henley’s gut-wrenching execution are plenty to keep us at home one more night, voraciously glued to the screen.
“the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness.”
It seems an age ago now but back in March, when the New York Governor ordered Broadway’s theatres to close as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the city, there was still the feeling in London that ‘it won’t happen to us’. But lo and behold, four days later, the Prime Minister’s statement ensured our theatres followed suit. The mass exodus of London’s West End and the fringe left an eerie silence that filled the playhouses, as they started to gather dust. Many, like Southwark Playhouse, remained frozen in time; the empty music stands, props on the stage floor and, lit only by the ghost light; the centre-piece grand piano, silent on the now-motionless revolve. Waiting.
The waiting was longer than we initially thought, but seven months later to the day, and leading the way in the reopening of our theatres, Katy Lipson (in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group) kicks off where we left off with Jason Robert Brown’s powerful two-hander, “The Last Five Years”. Despite the plexiglass and socially distant seating, as the first notes fill the auditorium it feels like the intervening months never really happened. In tune with the time-twisting concept of the piece the audience are transported back to March of this year into an alternative existence wherein this nightmare may never have happened. The energy of Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch is undimmed and the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness. They tell us the story, through song, of two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, as they travel through five years of their relationship. He is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day.
It is a clever device that gives us insider knowledge. We know how it is going to end right from the start and are free to concentrate on the journey each character makes. The downside is the inevitable predictability, but the focus is on Brown’s compositions; all beautifully crafted, with a range of styles; yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs. And director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Matching Higginson’s and Lynch’s faultless interpretation of the characters is their musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”.
In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as the two advance and retreat along their own paths. Ironically, that is the show’s one minor flaw. It is easy to forget, when the actors are sometimes only inches apart, that they are years apart in the narrative. It often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and this unintentional self-centredness occasionally leaves us cold. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
Yet the performances consistently manage to sweep this slight distraction away with their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, we are spellbound, and our belief in the magic of musical theatre is unquestionably reaffirmed.