The Fastest Clock in the Universe – the Old Red Lion’s second undertaking of a Philip Ridley play after Mercury Fur in 2012, which enjoyed a sell-out run – is as dark and gruesome as anything you’d expect from a show with this playwright’s name attached to it.
As with all Ridley literature, both plays are excruciatingly uneasy and deliver a sinister sting. I saw Mercury Fur during its run, and it shocked and disgusted me: I thought it was fantastic. True to form, The Fastest Clock in the Universe, despite being written almost 12 years before Mercury Fur, is just as revolting and deliciously engrossing.
The effects of consumerism and an obsession with youth take human form in Cougar (Joshua Blake), a chilling narcissist who echoes Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. When the play begins, Cougar sits smoking a cigarette and sunning his chiselled torso in the East London flat he shares with his companion, Captain Tock (Ian Houghton). Identifying the nature of this companionship is tricky. At times Cougar and Captain’s dynamic resembles that of master and slave, where Captain is totally powerless to Cougar’s menacing manipulation, through his insatiable desire for him. We learn that it’s Cougar’s birthday: he’s turning nineteen – again. Cougar, you see, only ever turns nineteen, and his birthday is a rehearsed routine to lure young men to the flat in order to feed Cougar’s voracious sexual appetite. This time the victim is fifteen year-old schoolboy, Foxtrot Darling (Dylan Llewellyn).
Under Tom O’Brien’s direction, this sinister tale builds momentum slowly, making the moments of intense drama invigoratingly rewarding. Emily Harwood’s design drips hints of unease from the opening scene, with the stuffed birds watching from above the mantelpiece and the flat’s walls crumbling to pieces. These contribute to O’Brien’s focus on Cougar’s preservation: at the mere mention of wrinkles, Cougar enters a fit of panic and rage. The comic discontinuity of a character fixated on youth living in a disintegrating building is just one of Ridley’s many cryptic gags peppered throughout this production. Many of these come from Nancy Sullivan’s Sherbert Gravel, the unwanted guest at the party whose incessant use of the word ‘babe’ is one of many reasons Cougar clings uncomfortably to the cake knife. Sullivan is electric in bringing Ridley’s black humour to life, and this intense cocktail of laughter and dread never lets you off the hook.
The whole two-hour production is gripping. Ridley doesn’t just shock; he illustrates the dangerous potential of obsessive consumerism. From Blake’s ominous vanity to Llewellyn’s disturbing innocence, the performances by all five cast members are admirable. Tom O’Brien has creatively crafted a world of deep uncertainty, where human nature is unnervingly recognisable in a threatening moral apocalypse.
The Fastest Clock in the Universe is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 November. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website. Photo by Darren Ball.