For his latest play, Tender Napalm, playwright, filmmaker, children's author and hat-enthusiast Philip Ridley has teamed up again with Moonfleece director David Mercatali, although this is a very different piece from last year's political fairytale. The Southwark Playhouse's main stage is configured in traverse (such a good match to that space, I'm surprised I haven't seen it used there before,) the stage bare except for plain chairs on either end. Man and Woman (Jack Gordon and Vinette Robinson) enter and warm up as if for a boxing match, which is apt because although they're playing a couple in love, they'll be throwing around a lot of aggressive imagery. A sort of visual poem, I feel as if I should point out this is just my interpretation of Tender Napalm and depending on accuracy this review could either be very spoilery or spectacularly irrelevant.
Most of the play is a sort of verbal lovemaking, the two throwing stories to each other that jump in and out of reality in the East End, and their private fantasy world on a desert island. There's a recurring theme of a lost child, their physical and emotional relationship one of the ways they've helped each other through the loss. But this is often rough sex, the napalm of the title - their "foreplay" sees them indulging in violent fantasies, she telling him he's going to cut his cock off, he promising to shove a hand grenade up her cunt and pull the pin (but he'll lubricate it first, he's not a monster.) At other times their desert island is a battlefield, each commanding teams of monkeys, sea monsters and aliens. In among the fantasy are hints of how they first met, and after they've both "come" the end of the play sees this origin story concluded, and we see how the circumstances of their first meeting created the fantasy world that was their subsequent physical relationship.
It is, undoubtedly, a strange experience but worth seeing. As ever, Ridley's other career as a children's author lends a fairytale theme to his (in this case very) adult work; I keep thinking I should look for some of his children's novels and see if the influence goes both ways. What he's ultimately done though, is create a challenge for two actors, who inevitably are what you remember from the evening. Gordon in particular is literally soaked in sweat long before the end from all the throwing himself around the stage; both love and battles are enacted with the two barely touching each other (actually I wished Mercatali had been stricter in keeping them completely apart until the end, in fact they do briefly touch now and then along the way which lessens the eventual impact slightly.) The two are excellent though and their ability to turn on a sixpence from epic fantasy to mundane reality and back brings both humour and a sense of poetry to the piece. The ending's a tad too long and it's perhaps a bit too oblique to entirely work but I love how bold the show is and it's one of those I find myself liking more the more I think about it.
Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley is booking until the 14th of May at Southwark Playhouse.