Radiant Vermin has been billed as Philip Ridley’s first comedy, but of course there’s always been a vein of fierce humour running through his work. The balancing of light and dark, of the everyday and the obscene, which makes him one of our most brilliant and enduring playwrights, relies on those nervous titters or sudden belly laughs. The idea of Ridley as a writer of bleak horrors is a false one – he’s not Edgar Allen Poe or H P Lovecraft, and he’s not Sarah Kane either. If you were to compare him to anyone, it would have to be William Burroughs or Jonathan Swift. He’s a satirist who dissects real-life cruelties through monstrous fantasies and merciless humour. He understands the fleshy horror of living, he knows where your soft bits are, and he’s perfectly prepared to give them a kicking.
This time he’s putting his boot into gentrification, commodification, and the housing crisis. But though there are superficial (and coincidental) similarities to Mike Bartlett’s GAME, particularly in the initial setup of a couple miraculously provided with a free home – but at a cost to their humanity, Ridley’s play is both broader and more accurate. It takes aim not only at the careless cruelties practised by the middle classes, but also at something rotten in the heart of family itself. It’s a reminder that heteronormative couples are sleeper-cells of selfishness in the heart of society, that our first allegiance is always to ourselves, and while that’s a harsh truth to face, it’s one that Ridley articulates with wicked chutzpah.
Ollie and Jill are expecting their first child, and they don’t want it to grow up in a run-down flat. That’s when a real-life Mary Poppins in the form of the magical Miss Dee. She offers them a beautiful new home, totally rent-free. Sure, it’s in a bit of a rough area – an estate that’s gone to seed, where homeless men and women crouch around campfires and the respectable community have long-since fled. Sure, the house needs a bit of fixing up, a few ‘renovations’, a word which takes on an increasingly sinister meaning, but nobody said owning a dream home would be easy.
After the unfortunate death of a house-breaking vagrant miraculously results in a brand new fitted kitchen, our smiling hosts begin a descent into increasingly mechanised mass murder to keep up with the Joneses, who arrive in ever increasing numbers to this emerging property hot-spot. Soon Ollie is cruising the dark roads at night, looking for likely victims whose disappearance won’t be noticed. Soon this sugar sweet couple have transformed into Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, into Fred and Rose West.
It’s an ingenious conceit, utterly barmy but surprisingly elastic and nuanced. There’s ghoulish glee to be had in Ollie’s first hamfisted murders, and in Jill’s increasing hunger for the luxurious and lust for blood. But there’s also real heart and real horror. When one of Ollie’s hunting trips goes awry and Jill comes face to face with a potential victim, it’s genuinely bruising. The suggestion that the government are in on it all, that they may even be orchestrating it all in order to improve dilapidated areas through jealousy and competition is harrowing. It all builds to a masterpiece of writing, performance and direction where Ollie and Jill’s guilty consciences finally catch up with them in an orgy of screeching neighbours and hot-breathed panic.
Where Ridley’s previous work frequently invokes claustrophobia, here we have air and light. Where the movement in Mercury Fur, Piranha Heights or Leaves of Glass is characterised by shards of absurd violence bursting out of the everyday, here it flows and dances. Ridley builds on the confessional frame of Dark Vanilla Jungle by explicitly locating the audience as confidents of this bubbly couple. It allows the narrative to skip frothily forwards, but it also makes a broad but crucial point about the audience’s own culpability. The issue of urban gentrification and the damage it can do extends far beyond ambitions for a dream home or a stable environment for children, and into smaller decisions and transactions which make up the pattern of all our daily lives.
David Mercatali’s precise but fluid direction contributes greatly to this loosening and playfulness – Jill and Ollie move and speak with the energetic rhythms of a 90’s sit-com, a peculiarly British form of farce which also played heavily on the conspicuous consumptions and material vanity of the working and lower-middle classes. Sean Michael Verey’s performance as Ollie has a twang of Rodney Trotter about it, and as Gemma Whelan’s Jill character gradually loses her authenticity and innocence, she shuffles towards a long line of self-deluding materialsts.
With a stripped bare white cube of a set by Will Reynolds, Radiant Vermin requires fearsome talent, energy and flexibility from its performers, and Verey and Whelan deliver in spades. They ricochet across the stage, smiles plastered on as their lives become increasingly detached from reality. The party scene asks for a tour de force, and it gets it, as characters fly past in a constant and escalating blur. Whelan has delivered this kind of intensity as recently as her last Ridley/Mercatali collaboration Dark Vanilla Jungle, but Verey matches her step for step. There’s brilliant support from Amanda Daniels too, as both the fairy godmother Miss Dee and particularly the tragic victim Kay.
Radiant Vermin may see Ridley at his loosest and most playful, but as in his work for young adults, his astute political mind shines through. The teeth are filed as sharp and the jaw is as strong. It might be painted in brighter colours and with more fantastic strokes, but it’s still a vicious fucking crocodile of a play.