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The Pitchfork Disney review at Shoreditch Town Hall, London – ‘a shot in the arm’

The Pitchfork Disney at Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Photo: Matt Humphrey
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It’s a wonder that Jamie Lloyd hasn’t directed Philip Ridley’s work before. Recognised for his signature in-your-face directorial style, here he’s tackling a writer – and in The Pitchfork Disney, a play – acknowledged as a cornerstone of the ‘in yer face’ theatre movement.

The Pitchfork Disney launches a Ridley double-bill at Shoreditch Town Hall. It will be followed by the premiere of his latest play, Killer. These productions are Lloyd’s first foray into immersive staging, in a battered-looking basement room. Designer (and frequent Lloyd collaborator) Soutra Gilmour’s traverse set is a faded hodgepodge of lamps and found items.

It’s an apt setting for Ridley’s seminal work – hidden away from the world, just like parentless twins Presley and Haley Stray. There’s a nightmarish, fairytale quality to their horror stories of a nuclear wasteland outside the door. They’re Hansel and Gretel, hiding from witches. Trauma-riven denial glints darkly in the dank, soiled poetry of Ridley’s prose.

As Presley and Haley, George Blagden and Hayley Squires are deeply damaged goods: spiky, jumpy and lost. Blagden is a wound-up ball of need. A hollow-eyed Squires agitates restlessly. Lloyd brings a rough-and-tumble dark humour to the play that it’s more than robust enough to match. There’s a quasi-soap operatic tone of the siblings’ gore-filled storytelling.

This is a fast-paced production (with a run-time about 10 minutes shorter than the Arcola’s 2012 revival), but its franticness isn’t about simple velocity. Sometimes, Lloyd’s productions seem fearful of pausing, but here he lets moments sink in. Presley’s and Haley’s paranoia – which confounds “outside” and “different” as the same – is a shuddery breath even before Cosmo Disney arrives.

With his perfectly coiffed peroxide hair and sculpted cheekbones, Tom Rhys Harries’ cockroach-eating entertainer is an evil, East End matinee idol. Disney drops like a red-sequinned-jacket-wearing atom bomb into the Strays’ lives. The streak of self-loathing, the curl of fear, in his malice is compelling. His fear of germs, of being “touched by a man”, is almost combustible as he toys with Presley.

Apart from Richard Howell’s nicely achieved car-headlight-mimicking lighting and Ben and Max Ringham and George Dennis’ sparing soundscape, the atmosphere in this production depends on the performances. When Seun Shote’s gimp-suited Pitchfork Cavalier stomps into the room, seething and shaking as if he might explode open, it’s electrically unsettling. He’s the embodiment of a sadistic world that de-humanises and tramples on people for pleasure.

Early Ridley isn’t always content to let us make thematic connections ourselves, and, occasionally, this production’s bluntness drops into jarring sniggering, with oral sex allusions that range from eye-rolling to queasily gratuitous. But at a time when generating fear feels like global political policy, this gripping, roller-coaster of a revival feels horribly ‘now’.

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This revival of Philip Ridley’s influential play is like a shot in the arm