Radiant Vermin at the Soho Theatre reviewed: a barmy little sketch posing as a revolutionary satire

Plus: The Cutting of the Cloth, a new play by Michael Hastings at the Southwark Playhouse that’s untouched by brilliance

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

Radiant Vermin

Soho Theatre, until 12 April

The Cutting of the Cloth

Southwark Playhouse, until 4 April

Philip Ridley is best known as the screenwriter of The Krays, in which Gary and Martin Kemp played Ronnie and Reggie as a pair of tanned and lisping choirboys. Ridley loves to bang his own gong. And he’s got enough gongs to raise quite a racket. The Smarties Prize, the W.H. Smith Mind-Boggling Book Award, the George Sadoul prize, the best director award at the Porto Film Festival. His action-packed CV even features trophies he nearly won but didn’t: the London Fringe Best Play Award (nominated); the Carnegie Medal (shortlisted). And no London writer has shown more literary potential than Ridley. He remains the only earthling ever to receive the Evening Standard’s ‘most promising’ award in both film and stage categories. How are those promises shaping up? Let’s see.

His new housing crisis play opens with young professional dimwits Jill and Ollie simpering and cooing over their first-born. They admit that their ascent up the property ladder has been a little bizarre. Plucked from a poky one-bedroom flat by a mysterious government agency, they were ushered into a brand-new house on an estate surrounded by grunting vagrants warming themselves at open-air fires.

The house needed new fittings and when they accidentally killed a homeless intruder they found that a refurb had been carried out by magic. Mildly surprised, they began slaughtering tramps and strays until their home boasted every imaginable symbol of suburban opulence including a mint-condition Lamborghini. Great. Now what? Jill and Ollie feel only a twinge of revulsion at their killing spree and the absence of moral coloration inflicts a lot of damage on this daft fable. Are we supposed to sympathise with these apple-cheeked murderers? Not really. To like them? Hardly. To despise them? Not even that, because they mewl and coo at us like a pair of labrador puppies begging for biscuits and a tickle. Once Ridley has established his parallel universe in which the state helps wicked freeholders to accrue wealth by massacring saintly nomads he can’t take it any further.

The script culminates in a 15-minute barbecue scene in which the actors playing Ollie and Jill impersonate dozens of characters talking bilge in a back garden. They gallop through 22 pages of aimless dialogue at breakneck speed leaping from persona to persona with a degree of dexterity that’s technically impressive but which leaves the viewer cold since the stunt has no artistic purpose other than to conceal the fact that the show ran out of ideas in its fifth minute.

The most remarkable aspect of this contrived twaddle is the respectful salutations of the reviewers. ‘Darkly macabre, stingingly funny,’ ran a typical comment. Don’t believe it. Critics regard a political play like this in the same way that David Cameron regards the Clarkson imbroglio: a handy opportunity to advertise a fashionably heterodox viewpoint. In truth this is a barmy little sketch posing as a revolutionary satire.

Michael Hastings (1937–2011) was the award-winning author of Tom and Viv about T.S. Eliot’s disastrous first marriage. The Cutting of the Cloth is set in a Savile Row sweatshop in 1953, a time when Hastings was a school-leaver, and he conjures the atmosphere and jargon of the cutting-room with effortless panache. In those days, before the ownership of houses and cars became commonplace, men were judged by other criteria. A suit was freighted with financial information. Shrewd women could divine at a glance the cost of a man’s threads and, by extension, his income. Cheap imported fabrics and the relaxation of sartorial formalities have erased this visual language for ever so the culture of the play is not so much dated as extinct. Hastings sets up a dramatic tussle between old and new. Spijak is an elderly Polish tailor who hand-sews every seam and despises the pedal-operated machines that will render his skills obsolete. He’s opposed by thrusting young Eric, who earns a tidy packet by using machines only. The twitchy apprentice Maurice, observing the civil war with anxious fascination, is clearly a Hastings self-portrait. (Clue: Maurice hides in the gents all lunchtime writing plays on loo paper.)

Hastings is a competent dramatist untouched by brilliance let alone anything higher. He plans his dramas along predictable lines and doesn’t know how to use sex to enrich a plot and bring an audience to the edge of their seats. The linch-pin character, Spijak, offers us no easy way into his inner life. He’s a right old sod, basically, a tyrannical, humourless alcoholic curmudgeon unleavened by warmth or vulnerability. Tricia Thorns’s assured and stylish direction makes this vintage piece enjoyable to watch but I left with the uneasy suspicion that I’d witnessed a bloodless Hobson’s Choice.

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