By Philip Ridley
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by The Moving Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | June 20-29
I wish I could say it had been ages since I walked out of a show feeling filthy. I mean, I saw Herstory on Tuesday night. But it’s been a long time since I walked out of a show feeling filthy from the inside rather than just plain grossed out. In the best kind of way, The Pitchfork Disney achieved this and more.
A plot summary of the show seems entirely superfluous, but here I go: two adult-children who are simultaneously addicted to chocolate and medicine while also being agoraphobic hide from the outside world, tell each other stories from their childhood, and wait for their medicine to kick in. From there, The Pitchfork Disney unravels in a mixture of darkness, hilarity, and horror.
It’s a shame that this is the first Philip Ridley play to make its way over here, at least in the time since I’ve been seeing theatre. Ridley is one of the most inventive writers of our time, getting to the core of his own insecurities and by doing so exploring some dark human truths: the basic childhood fears that lie at the heart of every adult. The Pitchfork Disney is not even the best Ridley play—the second half of the play quickly falls with padded patter and circular conversations—but it’s a work that deserves to be produced, and Moving Theatre’s production is more than deserving of the play.
The Q Loft is a versatile space, and yet it’s utterly transformed by Daniel Williams’s production design. The stairs leading up to the space are turned into an East London type walk-up, and we get a glimpse of our protagonist Presley (Todd Emerson) before the play even starts. The space itself is transformed into a large, dilapidated, and probably condemned living room with the light from the semi-dodgy hotel across the road shining through the window while the audience sit in a haphazard variety of seats and sofas. From the moment you walk in, you’re fully immersed in the world of the play. It’s a brilliant piece of design.
Sophie Roberts’s direction is measured and brilliant; she is wrangling with Ridley’s text as much as she is directing it. Again, it’s not a flawless play, but it is a brilliant play. She emphasises some of the most harrowing moments in the play and lets the most horrific ones—especially one towards the end—speak for themselves. Ridley plays need subtle but firm direction and Roberts provides this in spades.
The cast is roundly brilliant and well equipped to deal with this text. Todd Emerson has a massive load to lift as the lead. He’s onstage the whole time and has to deal with swathes of text, including a monologue that was allegedly seventeen minutes. In Emerson’s skilled hands, it seems like a mere five or so minutes, and he appears to be channelling Ridley directly with his alternatively bashful and terrified performance. Even outside of this, he embodies a childlike physicality with an adult shame of it. He’s often asked to carry the play, and he does so without missing a beat.
As Preston’s sister Hayley, Michelle Blundell is perfectly cast; she radiates the child this woman once was and the shell of a woman she is. Her Hayley is the pure, innocent heart of the performance, but she layers this innocence with a darkness that elevates the play.
Leon Wadham was a surprise as the villainous Cosmo, radiating menace and bad deeds even as Presley wants to like him, and more crucially, wants Cosmo to like him. Wadham has to embody some tricky thematic material and he does so without slipping into conceptual; his Cosmo is a very real presence onstage and a charismatic one at that. We know that he is indisputably a villain, but we want to like him as much as Presley does. He even manages to find the dark core of this character, an achievement as laudable as any. It would be easy for this menace to fall into, somewhat appropriately, Disney-villain type incoherence, but Wadham keeps it frighteningly real and visceral.
Sam Snedden has a latebreaking part, but he provides some of the most eyes-behind-hands moments and is a terrifying presence onstage. But even he doesn’t forget Ridley’s black sense of humour, and nails one of the funniest parts in the play while still keeping entirely in character.
The lighting and sound design match the play for inventiveness and maximise the audience’s immersion in the show. Sean Lynch’s sound design keeps the audience on edge at times, and at other times it seems to be luring us into sleep, and into the dreamlike atmosphere that the play uncomfortably sits in. Lai’s lighting design is stylistic and highlights the characters’ most naked moments very effectively.
Ultimately, Moving Theatre has to be lauded for bringing the work of Philip Ridley to Auckland. He’s a key playwright in the history of theatre, and I hope that this productiom begins a movement of people staging his plays in New Zealand; The Fastest Clock in the Universe needs a production here urgently. But they also have to be lauded for giving this show a production that it deserves. Brave, brilliant and immersive.