Piranha Heights was the first Philip Ridley play I ever saw, and in stark contrast to how big a fan of the playwright I've become in the years since, I didn't like it. I know from experience of introducing others to his work, though, that his very particular style can take a while to get used to, and people don't always respond to the first play of his they see. So I was interested to see what I thought of it the second time around, as Max Barton revives it at the Old Red Lion. Piranha Heights layers its characters on one by one, shifting the tone and upping the peril each time. The setting is a tower block flat whose resident of many years has recently died. Her youngest son Alan (Alex Lowe) hopes the housing association will let him have it next, as he plans to leave his wife and wants somewhere to live afterwards. But when his older brother Terry (Phil Cheadle) returns to sign the paperwork, he has plans of his own for the flat.
The family drama expands into an urban nightmare with the arrival of Lily (Rebecca Boey,) a girl in a veil speaking cod-Middle Eastern gibberish and praying to Elvis. She brings along her sociopathic boyfriend Medic (Ryan Gerald) and the doll they call their baby.
The play is a series of power struggles, beginning with the aggressive sibling relationship that's seen Terry intimidate Alan all their lives, and still use stunts like ato make him feel uncomfortable. Bringing the younger generation into the flat though takes things out of his control. Gerald is quite a find, bouncing between terrifying aggression and wide-eyed, cheerful craziness without taking a breath. (A woman I was talking to after the show intercepted Gerald to praise his performance. And his chest. Which is totally deserving of praise but see, I get called shallow for saying that sort of thing on a blog three people read, but it could be worse.)
Like many Ridley plays, Piranha Heights consists of a single scene, but shows at the Old Red Lion almost always have an interval (it's to give the air-conditioning another burst in a room that easily overheats.) There's an interval added here as well, but instead of it feeling unnecessary Barton uses it to his advantage: The second half, in which Alan's vaguely autistic, Jiminy Cricket-fixated son Garth (Jassa Ahluwalia) arrives, takes on a more overtly surreal style. Garth and Medic together make for an alternately erotically charged and psychotically violent pairing and this change of pace gives the play's denouement an operatic style.
The production hasn't made me reevaluate Piranha Heights as one of Ridley's better works; the fact that Barton deals well with the play's awkward changes in style doesn't mean they're not there, and the character of Lily doesn't really work. But being more familiar with Ridley's work - and, probably more importantly, no longer trying to find literal meaning for everything in the play - means I liked it much better this time around. Mention has to go, too, to designer Cécile Trémolières, not just for her ambitious set but also for the slightly hyper-real look of the teenage characters' costumes, whose colour-coded striped socks give them a suggestion of a Clockwork Orange-style gang uniform.
Piranha Heights by Philip Ridley is booking until the 6th of December at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.