“I want to do it Ollie. I want more things. Better things.”
The struggles of home ownership seem to be emerging as one of the most popular themes of new plays for early 2015 (Game at the Almeida, Deposit at the Hampstead downstairs) but top of the pile is Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, a highly hilarious and hugely successful sidestep towards the mainstream but one which sacrifices nothing of the unique worldview that marks him as one of our most thought-provoking playwrights. Almost custom-designed to fit into that much abused term ‘darkly comic’, the play probes mercilessly into the depths of human nature in asking how far would we go in order to get our dream home.
As it turns out, Jill and Ollie – energetic, enthusiastic, expecting – will go to some lengths indeed, making a deal not quite with the devil but with the fairy godmother-like Miss Dee instead, to accept a free home in a scuzzy area with the hope of renovating it, tipping the locale over into up-and-coming status and spearheading a property boom. So far so Saturday Night Takeaway but as with Ant and Dec, there’s a catch (and it is not just their personalities). The young couple quickly find out that that the speediest way to do up their new house is to harness the “radiance” that comes from killing the vermin around them, namely the homeless people from the neighbouring wasteground.
The scene seems set to descend into a typical Ridley-esque dystopian darkness but that dip never comes. Instead, the tone remains bright and bitingly sharp, fiercely funny even as the ugliness of the nakedly avaricious pursuit of the consumerist dream is fully laid bare. And in the hands of frequent Ridley collaborators as these, the spikiness and surrealism hits home with the kind of force party political broadcasts dream of having. On the blank canvas of William Reynolds’ well-lit set, David Mercatali’s precisely but perfectly pitched production allows a frankly anarchic sense of play to spill forth and utterly entrance the audience.
Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey are simply dazzling as Jill and Ollie – there’s a gorgeous openness about their physicality that keeps you thoroughly engaged in their storytelling, narrating their way through their own tale complete with self-edits, silly mimes and in the recreation of their son’s birthday party, a virtuosic comic climax that literally has to be seen to be believed (and then seen again to fully appreciate the masterclass that is actually is). Amanda Daniels adds sinister edge as the Poppins-like Miss Dee, teaching us lessons no matter what guise, and reinforcing that pernicious perception that property is God.