Murder, mental health, or what some might consider madness, figure heavily in the pitch dark comedy “The Ridleys,” along with frequent fits of forgetfulness. Produced by Theatre Upstairs in association with the Abbey Theatre “The Ridleys” sees English playwright Philip Ridley's companion plays Tonight With Donnie Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle making their Irish premiere on The Peacock stage. Performed back to back, each seventy-five minute monologue tells a dark tale of a delusional teenager divorced from the harsh realities surrounding them. As an attempt to engender empathy, or sympathy, for the so called monsters behind the media headlines, there’s no doubt “The Ridleys” is a labour of love. Yet while there is much to love about “The Ridleys,” the whole can feel like a little bit of a labour at times.
Each of Ridley's one-person plays features a damaged character whose life descends into horror and a padded cell. Yet if Ridley’s intention was to present a parole hearing of sorts for those often maligned as monsters in the media, neither character should be expecting early release anytime soon. Especially Donnie Stixx, wonderfully realised by Rex Ryan in the opening monologue Tonight With Donnie Stixx. A legend in his own mind, the self-confessed ‘remarkably talented’ wannabe magician Donnie proves to be about as remarkably talented as the worse X-Factor audition imaginable. Except Donnie doesn’t know this. Problem parents and well intentioned relatives are set on protecting Donnie from learning the truth about himself. Perhaps because Donnie, sounding like the love child of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory invested with traits from Francie Brady from The Butcher Boy, finds the world a difficult place to negotiate. And relationships even more so. Whatever his incarceration is supposed to achieve, rehabilitation isn’t happening anytime soon.
Problem parents and well intentioned relatives, along with several other recurring elements, again make themselves felt in Ridley’s second, more meandering monologue, Dark Vanilla Jungle. An astonishing Katie Honan as the damaged Andrea seeks refuge from reality in delusions of true love. Firstly with the devious Tyrone who tricks her into dark sexual places, and later with the injured soldier Glen whom she fantasises a new life with. An underlying motif of suffering little children in a world that won’t suffer the little children is writ larger here linking both monologues, with Honan’s descent into darkness being beautifully articulated throughout.
Under Karl Shiels often impressive direction, the oppressiveness of Ridley’s dark matter is vividly pronounced while its dark laughter remains delightfully intact. Yet if their overwhelming oppressiveness gives both works substance and depth, it also makes the whole feel heavy in places. Especially with Shiels weighing in in favour of text and its delivery over movement and physicality. Particularly noticeable during Rex Ryan’s grounded monologue, with Ryan often fixed in position, for the most part, moving primarily from the waist up and relying on gestures and tones to do the heavy lifting. As does Katie Honan’s delightfully deranged Andrea. Even if the feline-like Honan has a little more movement to play with, she, too, ultimately emphasises through the verbal and gestural. Pace, hurried in places, lends itself to a relentless rollercoaster energy at times. An energy which, due to the inordinate length of both monologues being played back to back, often plateaus, and risks Honan’s The Only Way Is Essex accent blurring into the inaudible in places, sounding like a recording being played back at speed on one or two occasions. Yet even if both performances emphasise what's being said over what's being seen, both performers often prove stunning.
Naomi Faughnan’s impressive yet simple set, all grey heavy padded cell with a brilliant play on perspective, adds additional layers of oppressiveness. Eoin Byrne’s lighting design, along with Derek Conaghy’s composition and sound design, and Alan Darcy’s composition, prove to be a mixed bag. When lights hit hard they create some wonderful images and physical jolts. But too often, like music and sound, their shifts and interplay are far too subtle, feeling like faint weighted accents designed to reinforce, or break up, the durational feel of the performances. Something that doesn’t really add all that much and which neither Ryan nor Honan have any real need of. For if an encounter with either Donnie and Andrea is unlikely to see you inviting them around any lifetime soon, the experience of watching Ryan and Honan, when they hit their groove, is something else to behold. If, as some argue, a truly remarkable performance is like watching the actor transform before your eyes, Honan and Ryan are often out of this world, and then some.
Theatre Upstairs is rightly recognised for promoting new works and for cultivating new artists. They look confident and at ease working on the Peacock Stage. They also have a reputation for taking real risks. Producing Tonight With Donnie Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle in tandem is another such risk. For “The Ridleys,” despite its many strengths, could prove to be a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Value for money certainly, but the oppressiveness of these mirrored monologues playing for over two and a half hours, and covering much of the same thematic ground, means “The Ridleys” durational darkness will certainly be taxing for some. Yet it’s tax worth paying just to see Ryan and Honan deliver powerhouse performances with moments both mesmerising and brilliant.
“The Ridleys,” featuring Tonight With Donnie Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley, directed by Karl Shiels and produced by Theatre Upstairs in association with the Abbey Theatre, runs at The Peacock Stage of The Abbey Theatre until January 26.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.