Philip Ridley’s tour de force of a play, Shivered, is the story of a family torn apart by the beheading of their soldier son after he is taken hostage abroad. In true Ridley fashion, it is not the act of the beheading that takes priority but the characters’ obtuse ways of seeing the world and how they can deal with the brutal murder. The father, Mikey (Simon Lenagan), is caught u[p in searching for UFOs, whilst the mother, Lyn (Olivia Poulet), seduces men and desires violent sexual acts. The younger son Ryan (Joseph Drake), sees (in an autistic manner) the way in which those around him deal with the world – but instead of being able to act on this he loses himself to monsters and aliens. The murdered son, Alec (Robbie Jarvis), is a hot-headed man who tries to escape his home town by joining the army, but ends up as fueling the extremists and a society that gladly watches someone being neheaded on a video posted on the internet.
Ridley has an impressive knack for filtering the world around him through a lens of intensity, showing the grotesque in human life. His characters have a pervasive sense of all the bitter and twisted ways that our society has allowed us to accept how truly messed up we are and, instead of just allowing us to accept it, Ridley shows us the truth within it. Whilst Shivered is a calmer approach to the depravity of the world compared to some of his earlier writing, its clear Ridley still has a pen to put razor-sharp dialogue into his theatre.
With a bare stage, Russell Bolam’s direction spills out into the space allowing his cast to have an energy and commitment to Ridley’s text. This is certainly felt in the first act, where the narrative – whilst episodic in form – creates a climax before the interval. Ridley’s characters are wonderfully embodied throughout but particular highlights are drawn from Drake as Ryan and Jarvis as Alec, the two brothers whose relationship and characterisation is utterly believable and honest.
A curious thing takes place within the second act: all the power, commitment and drive of the first act is regrettably lost. Ridley seems compelled to tie up the loose ends of narratives rather than to offer us the inner guts of his characters as initially promised. Beyond Williams’s excellent portrayal of Jack, all the tension and observant intensity that Ridley commands dwindles into nothing.
Shivered does have moments of sheer beauty within Ridley’s poetic descriptions of the world around us. There are particular moments when it seems that Ridley captures everything about the world that we as an audience can not put into words ourselves. It’s the visually poetic but horrific ordeals that, whilst gruesome to hear, resonate much deeper than most of us would like to admit. Yet the promise of this in the first act does leave you disappointed in the second. There is some fine acting and even finer writing, but when a play loses momentum as Shivered does, the audience is left frantically clutching onto the strands of suggestive narratives and ideas. These too quickly pass through our hands.
What Shivered offers is a look at a group of characters driven by inner desires from the darkest side of the human mind. Where the character of William sees videos online as a window onto the world, and Ryan looks to fictional monsters and aliens for signs that he is alive, these characters see a distorted version of the world around them. Whilst Ridley manages to capture our internet obsessions and disdain towards the normality of life, he fails to distill this for the full length of Shivered. A cracking first half act that falls lifelessly limp by the second.
Shivered is at Southwark Playhouse until 14 April. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk