'Radiant Vermin' review or 'Who's in charge of Neighbourhood Watch?'

Radiant Vermin, Philip Ridley
Soho Theatre, 12th March 2015

Housing! It’s bloody impossible to secure at the moment but positively spilling off the London stages. Mike Bartlett explored the housing crisis in his thrillingly invasive play ‘Game’ and now it’s Philip Ridley’s turn with ‘Radiant Vermin’.  This isn’t your normal Ridley play, much lighter and funnier than recent works – but it’s got a fizzing, rotten heart at its core.

Meet Ollie and Jill. They look like they’ve been whisked straight off a Normcore gap advert. They’re smartly dressed and cleanly spoken and gosh darn delighted with their new dream home. They’re here to tell us their story. We might not like it, they warn us, but we’ll understand – won’t we – since they only did what was best for their beloved baby.

Ridley’s play is performed against William Reynolds’ bright white stage, hemmed in by crisp white screens. The show is performed as dualogue, which jumps back and forward in time (and sometimes clean out of the action altogether with cheeky little asides) as Ollie and Jill tell their tale. It is a tight and simple set up with plenty of wriggle room and Ridley plays around with the structure quite masterfully. You can almost hear him grinning.

Director David Mercatali controls the show brilliantly and keeps it light and easily paced at the beginning, gradually easing off the breaks and letting the whole thing tumble towards a demonic crash landing. There’s a fairy-tale gleam to the opening scenes as Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) and Jill (Gemma Whelan) explain how they managed to move from a failing estate to a swanky new pad. Enter Miss D (Amanda Daniels), a crisply dressed figure who has a Marry Poppins-esque bag but a ferocious gleam in her eye. She is here to offer Ollie and Jill a once in the life time opportunity: a brand new home! It’s a regeneration project, you see, and the hope is that Ollie and Jill’s charming ways will rub off on the whole area and kick-start a brand spanking new neighbourhood.

It doesn’t take long, of course, for things to turn seriously ugly, with the kind of fiery gruesomeness that is so distinct to Ridley. One horrible accident with an intruder has a quite spectacular outcome – a new kitchen! – and it isn’t long before our perky couple little couple are knocking off tramps like they’re going out of fashion. There is such a lightness to Verey and Whelan’s performances – they’re like Sunday night sitcom heroes with a dirty little secret – that the ugliness is kept at bay. The blank canvas of a set, too, stops us from thinking too much. We’re allowed to enjoy the entertainment without lingering on the consequences; a lot like Jill and Ollie.

There are a few dips once the initial gloss wears off but these performances are so fierce and Ridley’s script so cheeky and self-aware, that they don’t last long. The couple’s desire to keep up appearances – both in front of us and their neighbours – allow for some stinging comic turns, as the two commit all manner of sins in an attempt to appear virtuous. In one scene, Jill’s earnest discussion about the virtues of Christian values quickly spirals into a spitting condemnation of the ‘waster’ vagrants in her neighbourhood. The two positively glow with hypocrisy and, at every turn, Ridley turns the knife in on a society that – increasingly – surges blindly ahead at the cost of others.  

The message is so tightly bound up in the structure – look how the scramble to get ahead is warping us beyond measure –that Ridley never has to push too hard. The sting only comes late on and, even then, it’s very, very funny. There is a brilliant party scene in which Verey and Whelan play a throng of neighbours in one of the most exquisitely timed pieces of comedy you’ll see this year. They chuckle, drink, moan, sneer, cry, gloat and sing, jumping between countless characters in sublime synchronisation. Darker little elements begin to wriggle free from the party, as the two are swept away and subsumed by a hell of their own making. 


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