Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 22nd November 2018
“For the first night of First Knight’s run it bodes devilishly well. A night to remember indeed”
We live in a world, apparently, where enough is never enough. Which is one of the assertions underlying Philip Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin” currently staged by First Knight Theatre at the Jack Studio Theatre. Admittedly there is nothing shockingly novel in this observation, but after ninety quickfire minutes in the company of the three actors who lead us through Ridley’s jet-black text, we are shown a whole new, fantastical perspective on the Faustian pact. Part ‘Brothers Grimm’, part ‘The League of Gentlemen’, this is a fable for today’s materialistic world, made particularly pertinent under the current barrage of ‘Black Friday’ ads the audience navigates to get to the theatre.
Director Dan Armour takes the bold choice of throwing his actors onto a bare stage, with no props, no set, no sound and, with the exception of one ‘devilishly’ climactic burst, no lighting cues. We’re relying on the drama alone. It begins when a young couple address the audience. All smiles and affability, their overemphasis on telling us they are ‘good people’ obviously makes us doubt. They are Ollie and Jill and, in the opening format of a kind of game show, they set the ball rolling, telling us how they came about acquiring their dream home. We might be appalled. Again, they tell us they are ‘good people’. It is only later that we begin to realise the reasons behind this over-insistence. Are we just like them? Would we do the same? How far would any of us be prepared to compromise our principals for our goals?
Revelations like this slap us in the face throughout, but the sting is sweetened by the sheer comedy and the outstanding performances. Matthew John Wright and Laura Janes, as the couple, handle the fast-paced dialogue with a commanding ease. Wright’s Ollie, with echoes of Reece Shearsmith, twists his morals as he bends to his own needs and greed, and to those of Jill, brilliantly played by Janes as the girl next door who swiftly evolves into Lady Macbeth. When they discover that they have been selected for what appears to be a government-sponsored housing scheme, they meet the sinister, omniscient Miss Dee, who offers them the perfect property. Oh, but there’s a catch: it is just the shell of a house. But when Ollie accidentally kills a local vagrant, the house miraculously acquires a perfectly equipped kitchen. Gradually, the couple realise that their creation of the ideal home is only achievable through murdering homeless people.
Emma Sweeney is a delight as the Mephistophelian Miss Dee, coaxing not just the actors onstage, but also the audience. She knows too much. With a mischievous grin, Sweeney gets her character spot on, and manages to keep her performance understated enough not to tip it into the realms of absurd fantasy. She is unrecognisable, too, when she doubles as Kay, one of the couple’s homeless victims, who touchingly allows herself to be led to the sacrificial altar.
The play isn’t without its diatribes, but what can you expect from Ridley? But there is more inherent comedy in this play than a lot of his work, which this talented trio masterfully highlight. When Janes and Wright hold a garden party for their child’s first birthday, they fill a jaw-dropping fifteen minutes of stage time playing each and every one of their ‘neighbours-from-hell’. A masterstroke of writing and acting it is worth seeing this show just for those few moments alone.
“Radiant Vermin” is a provocative satire about the housing market, the housing crisis, homelessness, inequality, greed, materialism, Godlessness, consumerism and conscience. Sounds diabolical! I don’t envy the person who had to pitch this production for the festive season. Yet the show is perfectly pitched by this dynamic team. For the first night of First Knight’s run it bodes devilishly well. A night to remember indeed.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Robert Piwko
Jack Studio Theatre until 1st December
Last ten shows reviewed at the venue: