In 1995, Sarah Kane brought the walls of a Leeds hotel room crashing down in explosive fashion for her debut play, Blasted. After a decade of playwrights politely rearranging the furniture, Kane demolished it with soldiers, bombs and bloodshed – forever dissolving the boundaries between domestic conflict and geopolitical violence in one slick, stylish and savage move. In Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights (2008), the playwright adopts a similar technique; this time around, however, it is reality itself that collapses, spiralling out of control before imploding violently and tumbling in on the audience’s heads.
Piranha Heights concerns Alan (Alex Lowe) and Terry (Phil Cheadle) – two brothers battling for possession of their recently deceased mother’s council house – who struggle in the course of their fraught reunion to resolve their memories of the past. Memory serves as an integral part of Ridley’s work, and in Piranha Heights memory becomes the contested battleground in which both brothers dredge up the past and twist the truth in order to score a victory over the other. However, what begins as seemingly straightforward social realism soon spirals into something altogether stranger and more deadly. This is Philip Ridley, after all.
At the heart of Ridley’s play is the brothers’ deceased mother. Although we never encounter her directly, she is continuously present in her eternal absence, immortalised in the many family photographs lining the walls and the sparkling chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The interior world of Alan and Terry’s family home becomes a fully functioning character. Director Max Barton and designer Cécile Trémolières further underline this impression by emphasising the hyper-real qualities within the play: televisions flicker into life, chandeliers fizzle by themselves, and Rhys Lewis’s sound design conveys a howling, windswept landscape.
But it’s in the play’s second act that things really ratchet up a knot. The intrusion of Lilly (Rebecca Moey) and Medic (Ryan Gerald) precipitates the slide from kitchen-sink realism into full-blown phantasmagoria of horrors, with Gerald on genuinely frightening form as the volatile Medic: a knife-wielding, gun-toting schizoid who oscillates from doughy-eyed affection for Lilly and Baby (his ‘plastic-toy’ baby) to wild-eyed, homicidal fury. Nevertheless, this is a production with stand-out performances across the board, with Alex Lowe and Phil Cheadle utterly captivating as the grief-stricken yet bitterly divided brothers.
On one level, Piranha Heights works as a whirligig synthesis of ideas and influences. The house collapsing in on itself carries with it strong echoes of Blasted, with designer Trémolières orchestrating a violent implosion of wood, glass and plaster. Elsewhere, there are resonances of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming in Lilly assuming the role of matriarch at the close of the play. On another level, it’s yet another demonstration of why the Ridley renaissance continues – a modern day, nightmare fable of imploding worlds.
Piranha Heights is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 6 December. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.