Shivered, Southwark Playhouse

In this latest piece from seemingly ubiquitous polymath Philip Ridley, form does not so much reflect content as it does context. Ridley’s shattered play is a chillingly appropriate response to an increasingly fractured modern society, with casually engendered violence and careless cruelty glinting back at us from each piercing shard of narrative. It is not quite entirely without hope or brief glimpses of redemption, but the dark, nightmarish landscape of Shivered does evoke the sense that, as disillusioned soldier Alec passionately argues, the world is almost incurably sick.

Ridley’s chopped up story takes as its setting the fictional Essex new-town of Draylingstowe, once upon a time a symbol of hope and prosperity, now a post-industrial playground for violent youth. The derelict car plant that once held the town’s promise is now a shady backdrop for drug-taking, suicide and cruel sexual fantasies, while Draylingstowe’s disenchanted citizens find meaning in conspiracy theories, whispers of extra-terrestrial activity and mysterious canal-dwelling monsters. It is a world that hovers somewhere between fairytale, nightmare and grim reality; grubby concrete illuminated by the garish lights and glitter of the fairground.

This semi-mythical world is vividly conjured by Ridley’s assorted collage of narrative snapshots, cutting and dicing the story of two interlinked Draylingstowe families. Lyn’s family is as fragmented as the play itself, shattered by the loss first of her son Alec, who is brutally beheaded while serving overseas in the army, and then the disappearance of husband Mikey, leaving her with only her younger, UFO-obsessed son Ryan. When the fair arrives in town it brings with it the tantalising promise of sexual excitement, as Lyn meets opportunistic showman Gordy and the pair begin to meet in the disused car plant, her son’s favourite haunt. Meanwhile, Ryan’s friend Jack finds escape from the torment of bullies and the daily drudge of caring for his overweight mother in graphic YouTube videos of sex and violence – one of which happens to be a recording of Alec’s horrific execution.

But none of it is quite as simple as this. The above narrative is the one that we as an audience piece together, filling in the blanks between the scattered series of scenes that Ridley presents before us, making almost subconscious links. It is an ingenious, dazzling exercise in plotting, throwing chronology into chaos without plunging the whole into incomprehensible obscurity, but Ridley’s experimental approach to structure is not a mere demonstration of his startling ability as a writer. Central to the play that Ridley has crafted are questions of how we fight to find meaning and explain our own existence, be it through narrative, religion or superstition.

There is repeated talk of ‘illusory contours’: the patterns we find in unlinked objects, like constellations of stars. This same mental process is one that we are unwittingly forced into, as Ridley coaxes us into making connections before throwing these into doubt. Are these collected scenes really linked in the way we imagine them to be, or are we guilty of the same forced, wilful conclusions as Ryan in his determined hunt for UFOs? What, ultimately, can we believe in? In the dark, slowly rotting world of the play, under the haunting spectre of abandoned industrialisation and rapidly unravelling values, the answer would seem to be very little.

The bare, evocatively lit space of the Southwark Playhouse has never seemed more bleak than in Russell Bolam’s stripped down, almost minimalist production. There is nowhere to hide for either writing or actors – or for audience, for that matter. Ridley’s boldly drawn characters jump out at us, sometimes quite literally in the case of Gordy’s fairground act, performed with effervescent showmanship by the buzzing, charismatic Andrew Hawley. There is impressive work too from a fragile yet cuttingly sardonic and sometimes fiercely wounding Olivia Poulet as Lyn and from Robbie Jarvis as her broken son Alec, who is haunted by unnamed ‘monsters’.

Ridley’s strange, disturbing not-quite-dystopia is never as unsettling, however, as when seen through the eyes of its young protagonists, whose twelve-year-old imaginations the playwright has convincingly penetrated. Ryan and Josh retain barely discernible traces of youthful innocence and optimism, but their existence has been permeated by technology and readily available violence, numbing them to the reality of physical aggression and placing a computer or mobile phone screen between them and all of their experiences. These two troubled and troubling youngsters are convincingly portrayed by the outstanding Joseph Drake and Joshua Williams, who are by turns bitingly funny and uncompromisingly brutal – phrases that could well describe Ridley’s play.

Despite a plot which is, when reassembled into chronological order, comparatively slight, this is meaty fare. Ridley dwells on both startlingly contemporary issues, such as our desensitisation to violence and the very real threats of post-industrial society, and timeless, universal questions of how we find meaning in our lives, with vivid dashes of magical storytelling thrown in for good measure. It is, as the playwright himself has described it, a ‘state-of-the-nation dream play’. The dreamlike is always close to the surface here, featuring dialogue saturated with fantastical references to monsters, aliens and other childhood fears. But the real world, as Ridley unflinchingly demonstrates, is so much scarier.

Shivered runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 14 April.