“You’re not the only monster in this house”
Many a play purports to send chills down the spine but precious few actually manage the act of setting the hairs on end with moments of genuine chilling revelation. But Cuddles, Joseph Wilde’s first full-length play which has just opened upstairs at the Oval House, managed just that with its pervasive air of dark fantasy gone wrong and one of the most shocking moments one will probably see all year in a theatre. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s direction keeps the intensity of this show almost oppressively high, challenging both her actors and her audience, but emerges with a flawed gem of a production that won’t be easily forgotten.
Shut away in her room in a castle, Eve is a 13 year old vampire whose only visitor is the (human) Princess Tabby who dispenses food, whether sandwiches or blood, and affection, cuddles of varying levels. But in the real world, Tabby is Eve’s big sister and a young woman aching for a taste of normal life and as she seeks to satisfy that hunger with a likely young chap named Steve, Eve’s own determination to pursue her desires theatens to disrupt all the carefully constructed systems they have put in place to manage day to day life.
Wilde meshes an unnerving combination of fantasy and reality into the 80 minutes running time and further ensures we’re never sat too comfortably by incorporating a vein of refreshing and often brutal comedy which undercuts and overlaps the growing unease that comes from venturing into the world of this teenage vampire and her frustrated carer, gradually uncovering more of their personal histories and winding its way to its haunting climax.
Carla Langley – undoubtedly a name to watch for the future as shown by her scintillating debut in Desolate Heaven earlier this year – is perfect as Eve, bringing an unfiltered rawness to bear that is highly affecting and rightly uneasy. And Rendah Heywood as the emotionally damaged Tabby makes a convincing case for why she needs to exert such control over her life now and has most of the spiky humour – her take on chuggers is particularly amusing.
Cuddles is rarely an easy watch but no less compelling for it. The writing does have its occasional shortcomings – a hazy sense of detail leaves a few too many questions hanging – and the direction may be a little too confrontational at times – the nudity felt wrong to me – but it remains a striking piece of theatre that ought to be seen. It’s a genuinely unique take on well-worn ideas about vampires – fans of Let The Right One In will lap this up – but also of how all-too-human cycles of abuse and violence are capable of wreaking just as much evil