I don’t think there’s a single moment in Philip Ridley’s highly acclaimed play when the two characters, Man and Woman, take their eyes off each other. They square up for the contest from opposite ends of a long and intensely lit rectangle of space, outdoing each other in hurling words and in the animal circling, provocation and intensity of courtship.
Lara Rossi and Tom Byam Shaw in Tender Napalm at Curve, Leicester Photo: Camilla Greenwell
It is hugely physical and makes extraordinary demands on the actors. The story of the couple’s relationship and its underlying tragedy emerges in fragments, without chronology and with an ever-shifting dynamic. The satisfying thing for the audience is how it suddenly begins to make partial sense, so that what seemed fantasy in the shape of unicorns and serpents and the lost world of Atlantis is revealed to have its roots in reality.
Ridley’s language of love is shocking stuff at times, in its anger and violence and in the graphic sexual imagery of grenades and bullets. But it can move in an instant from savagery to sensuousness. These are beautiful, intuitive performances from Tom Byam Shaw and Lara Rossi. He can be boyish, child-like even when he is telling the tall tales of a super-hero. She is athletic hard woman one minute and vulnerable young girl at her first ball the next.
Sometimes it’s like watching an explosion. And then there come moments of tenderness so intense you almost forget to breathe. The play gets a seven-week tour, returning to Southwark Playhouse, where it had its premiere last year.