“The dialogue is nimble, often hilarious, and the characters are full of sympathy even at their most bitter”
In cold weather hedgehogs huddle together for warmth, but find that in doing so, they invariably pierce each other with their spines. This is the premise of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Hedgehog’s Dilemma”, his bleak, allegorical musing on the nature of human intimacy, and, if you can believe such a thing, it is the subject of a new light-hearted take on modern romance by Blueleaf Theatre.
James P. Mannion’s sprightly piece revolves around a couple in a five-year relationship, drawn together by a shared intelligence and sharp senses of humour, driven apart by their many differences, the barbs with which they end up harming one another. Over a venomous 24-hour period, the failure of each to live up to the standards of the other rips the two apart.
Mannion skilfully captures the sense of opposition, the mysterious way in which two people might at the same time attract and repel. The dialogue is nimble, often hilarious, and the characters are full of sympathy even at their most bitter. He wastes no time in cutting to the action; after a brief prologue in which we witness the relationship blossoming for the first time, we quickly fast forward to its breakdown. Unfortunately, this sharp change in mood threatens to unsaddle the piece; from this point forth the register is one of constant conflict, making the opening feel arbitrary and at times leaving the play rather paceless. Moreover, fragments of Schopenhauer’s dilemma are pushed explicitly – and often rather awkwardly – into the narrative as she is a doctoral student for whom the philosopher is the subject of a thesis. The allegory is explicitly linked by the characters to the situation they find themselves in, and when this does happen, Mannion’s otherwise organic writing begins to feel didactic.
The charming performances of the leads quickly clear up such worries, however. Rebecca Bailey and David Shields find a great deal of humour in their characters, but crucially they know when to shift gear, exposing the pain beneath. Their warmth endears them to us, even as they drive each other away. Set entirely in the front room of their flat, the intimate, book-strewn space mirrors the mix of comfort and claustrophobia that exists between the pair.
Philosophy and drama have had a long a varied rapport themselves, as have philosophy and comedy. Hedgehogs & Porcupines plays with both relationships, and though at times it might lack bite, its enduring good nature finds much insight and enjoyment.
“Jaz Hutchins gives a stunning performance and makes the most of Ridley’s writing”
Novelist and playwright Philip Ridley has been cited as a pioneer of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre. Indeed his 1991 debut play The Pitchfork Disney was considered by many to have influenced the development of that style of work. In 2010 Ridley’s Moonfleece caused controversy when a Dudley arts centre cancelled a run as it felt the content “includes characters and themes of a political and potentially discriminatory nature”. The premise of the work is based around a gay relationship plus the advocates and victims of racism and homophobia. It traces a family with far right politics and the highly destructive and damaging results it eventually has on them.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Lidless Theatre are reviving Moonfleece in the compact stagespace studio at The Pleasance, London. Part of the project is supported by the Islington Youth Council who are serious about tackling the adverse impact hate crime has had on their community.
Upon entering the theatre it is clear the audience is going to feel part of the action, being up close and personal to the characters in the dilapidated East End tower block squat flat that the action will centre in. The set has two graffiti covered walls and the room is littered with debris and the seating is on two sides of the stage.
We are quickly introduced to the main character of the play – Curtis (Jamie Downie) a troubled young man who is part of a family hell-bent on spreading their fascist views to the surrounding neighbourhood. He returns uninvited to his old home with two of his henchman Tommy (Josh Horrocks) and the shaven headed unstable Gavin (Joshua Dolphin). They are dressed smartly, yet menacingly, in sharp grey suits with St George’s cross lapel badges on them. They are there for a séance in search of his lost brother’s ghost and over the next ninety minutes, we are introduced to a total of eleven characters who slowly add to the story that swings from shock violence to touching sadness. The main story is that of a dead brother who was banished by Curtis’ stepfather because of his sexual orientation. Though as with many Ridley plays, all is not what it initially seems.
When eventually the green haired wheelchair bound spiritual medium Nina (Adeline Waby) arrives the stage is ready for a showdown. There are a few characters that are arguably superfluous to the story but no doubt Ridley felt a reasonable need to include these to add both humour and further tension. The pace and substance of the play change when Zak arrives. Jaz Hutchins gives a stunning performance and makes the most of Ridley’s writing. It not only clarifies the story but it changes the pace and substance of the play.
Director Max Harrison has done well to revive this important piece of work, to fit so many characters into such a small space and to keep the pace moving well throughout. Designer Kit Hinchcliffe’s set makes the audience feel as though they really are in a squat. The lighting from Katy Gerard is basic though effective as is the sound design by Annie May Fletcher.
Overall this was a good showing of the play and as usual with Philip Ridley there is much to consider about the content when leaving the theatre.