In this production of Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley, playing in the intimate Old Red Lion Theatre, audiences are crammed in tight and asked to be forgiving of the warm atmosphere. But it’s not the heat that is making its audience uncomfortable, but the sheer force of Ridley’s play as it is hammered out with gut-wrenching force in front of us. When we read of the openings of Sarah Kane or Anthony Neilson’s explosive plays in the nineties, where there was no escape from the action, it is easy to understand what those critics were forced to endure. Ridley’s Mercury Fur delivers such intensity within the Old Red Lion Theatre that I am sure to be haunted by it in my sleep. The Greenhouse Theatre Company’s production, directed by Ned Bennett, is sensational at grabbing its audience by the scruff of the neck and giving them a good shake before kicking them out into the night. Utterly spellbinding whilst being repulsively brilliant.
Set within a dystopian version of the present day, where the empty shells of buildings give way to the rioting, bombing and the lure of butterfly drugs, two brothers, Elliot (Cuaran Owens) and Darren (Frank C Keogh), attempt to clear a flat of its debris to prepare for a party. It’s not just any party though, the Party Guest will have his wildest fantasy come true at this party, granted by Spinx (Ben Dilloway) at a rather costly price. Ridley’s play, first premiered in 2005, is, like all his plays, a look at the twisted world we live in through the most depraved and hopeless of our kind. Where nightmares are things of realities, and the only release people have from this world is through death and destruction. It’s gruesomely poetic and sounds the death knoll of our society, but in Bennett’s production, there is a hope, a fraction of a hope, that we might just be saved, even as the bombs begin to fall again.
James Turner’s design of a desolate flat with plasterboard littering the floor and upturned furniture sets the tone perfectly, whilst Bennett’s direction is as sharp as any seen within larger playing spaces. The young cast are perhaps the highlight beside the writing; there are sensational performances from the leading brothers of Elliot and Darren played by Owens and Keogh. Olly Alexander’s Naz is completely mesmerising, and is probably one the best young actors I’ve seen of late, certainly worth keeping an eye on. James Fynan’s interpretation of Lola is completely believable, especially as there isn’t a need for the character to be played by a man. Ben Dilloway, Katie Scarfe and Henry Lewis complete the cast, and do so with fine conviction, bringing the dark humour of Ridley’s characters to life.
For me though, it is the sheer force of Mercury Fur that left me breathless. In the intimate Old Red Lion Theatre it is hard to look elsewhere as the play climaxes to its formidable ending. Audible gasps and tension passed through the audience with such force that I’m sure I held my breath for the first time in a theatre in a long, long while. This production is unrelenting and ruthless, capturing Ridley’s poetic form with vigor, and surprise, too. Fringe theatre too often falls below the bar, but here we have a production that punches above its weight and knocks the wind out of you.
It’s difficult to fault. Perhaps purists will grumble at the added interval, but I couldn’t help but to feel grateful for the momentary pause within the stifling atmosphere. The Greenhouse Theatre Company’s production is a phenomenal debut onto the London fringe, and one that I daresay will give them opportunity to take their work further. Their commitment to detail, and their daring, is clearly shown, and with such a cast I’d be surprised that it doesn’t sell out once word gets around.
It’s not often I leave a production and think, “Yes, this is why I do what I do” but Mercury Fur did it. We don’t give out star ratings at A Younger Theatre, but this would certainly be 5/5. Gripping, gruesome, as addictive as it is repelling, it’s a tremendous remount of Ridley’s masterpiece and I urge you to buy a ticket.
Mercury Fur is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 14 April. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.