Deep in the bowels of Shoreditch Town Hall, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Philip Ridley’s first ever play, The Pitchfork Disney, is staged. In the long, dimly lit room known as The Ditch, Soutra Gilmour’s set design is an ensemble of dark wooden furniture and rusted kitchen appliances. The carpet is worn and the varnish on old wooden chairs; chests of drawers that have seen better days and sorry looking stools has faded. The edges of the space are scattered with dilapidated homeware, and we’re invited to sit on the chairs and drawers, almost anywhere we like. The actors work around us, and as we sit and watch on the furniture, we become part of it. We are wholly immersed in the play and feel uneasy as close-up voyeurs. While the view may be obstructed at points, it’s a small price to pay for such a distinctive experience.
Shocking for its time, when Ridley’s play was first performed in 1991, audience members are said to have walked out and even fainted. Today perhaps we are a little more desensitised, but Lloyd’s production is certainly enough to make you wide-eyed with shock. We follow orphaned twins Presley (George Blagden) and Hayley (Hayley Squires), who live together and look after one another. They share their dreams and fears and live mostly on chocolate. Squires and Blagden tear up and down the space, spouting bad dreams and munching on Dairy Milk with innocence, vulnerability and childlike wonder. However in quiet poetic moments, Hayley gives voice to fears we all share.
All seems to be well, until Presley opens their doors to Cosmo Disney (Tom Rhys Harries) whilst Hayley is in a drug-induced sleep. Promptly vomiting all over the floor and whipping off a black cape to reveal a dazzling red blazer, Cosmo is a true showman. Harries is completely alluring and with not a hair out of place, he saunters up and down The Ditch like it’s a runway. Quick, slick and clever, Harries steals the show and terrifies us all as he spits out lines like ‘Darwin got it all wrong, you see. Fitness has nothing to do with it. It’s survival of the sickest’, and Cosmo’s ‘associate’, the drooling and grunting Pitchfork (Seun Shote), is truly the stuff of nightmares.
Ridley’s writing is startling, and unearths some troubling ideas regarding the darker side of human nature. He questions the notion of anything remotely akin to karma, and throws away the idea of good people getting what they deserve and vice-versa. Distressingly, there seems to be nothing we can do to avoid the sometimes inevitable cruelty of life, no matter how ‘good’ we are. In a similar vain to Lloyd’s 2016 production of Doctor Faustus, The Pitchfork Disney is a heavy text that glitters with humour and suspense, that when given stylish direction and in the immersive setting of The Ditch, becomes a theatrical experience that lingers with you for a long while.
The Pitchfork Disney is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until March 18.
Photo: Matt Humphrey