“That’s all the universe is, one big torture chamber”
Written in the early 1990s, Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe has always carried echoes of Dorian Gray but watching it in 2013 in Islington’s Old Red Lion theatre pub (where Mercury Fur was memorably revived last year), it is remarkable to see how it prefigured the cult of celebrity and so-called reality television shows like The Only Way is Essex. The perma-tanned, pec-tastic, plucked vanity of protagonist Cougar Glass epitomises the obsession with image that looms large over contemporary society and consequently casts a new sheen over the self-gratifying urges that form the backbone of Ridley’s still disturbing play.
Glass is celebrating his 19th birthday, he’s been celebrating it for a number of years now and aided and abetted by his faithful companion Captain Tock, he has special plans indeed for his party, centred on the twinkish delights of 15 year-old schoolboy Foxtrot Darling. Obsessed with holding back the years, his narcissism is cruelly magnetic yet the vortex it creates pulls people mercilessly into its most destructive orbit, meaning that it is inevitably more than party favours that are going to be handed out by the end of the evening.
O’Brien’s revival benefits from the stuffy claustrophobia of the Old Red Lion – the masculinity drips from Joshua Blake’s perfectly moisturised pores as Cougar, acting with every inch of himself from the beginning, and there’s a persuasive performance from Ian Houghton as the Captain, hopelessly in love with the younger, more attractive man, even as his balding pate represents the very thing Cougar fears the most. Dylan Llewellyn’s pretty vacant smile as Foxtrot evokes the bland charm of many an X Factor wannabes and Nancy Sullivan works in great humour as late arrival Sherbet.
There’s a tendency to play to the gallery a little as the dark comedy is milked for all it is worth, meaning that the swerve into more menacing territory comes as more of a shock than the culmination of inexorably growing tension. And this means that the nastier edges of the characters – Blake’s excellent Cougar aside – are blunted somewhat, their jagged sharpness only appearing when roused rather than suggesting the complete warped (im)morality of Ridley’s worldview. That said, this remains a strongly enthralling experience.