Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Theatre review: The Fastest Clock in the Universe

The Fastest Clock in the Universe is surreal, sinister and drenched in dark poetry. In other words, by Philip Ridley's standards it's positively gritty naturalism. Cougar Glass (Joshua Blake) enjoyed his 19th birthday so much he's doing it all again, like he has for the last eleven years. He's dyed his hair, and any grey he missed is being tweezed out by Captain Tock (Ian Houghton,) the older antiques dealer who seems to finance Cougar's lifestyle of indolence, sunbathing, cigarettes and alcohol. The cake's been bought, birthday cards from imaginary friends have been laid out and the only thing missing is the special guest: For weeks Cougar has been grooming a grieving teenage boy, and the party is due to be the culmination of his seduction. But Foxtrot Darling (Dylan Llewellyn) brings with him a surprise that'll make this 19th birthday go a little differently from all the others.

Ridley's play deals with the fear of ageing and the passing of time by putting at the centre of it a man pathologically terrified of physical decay, to the point where even the threat of mentioning Cougar's real age can send him into a panic attack. His youth and beauty are still at a level where he can wrap the Captain round his little finger with the threat of leaving him, but they're so vital a part of him that maintaining them is his only task in life.

I've seen The Fastest Clock in the Universe before but it gains something from the intimate space of the Old Red Lion, the cleverness of its imagery really stood out to me here. It's not as full of familiar Ridley memes (no chocolate bars or bugs get eaten, no injured legs although Cheetah Bee does walk with a stick) as some of his plays, except of course for the sexual violence and the fairytale theme that gives it its title. But the blurring of beauty and cruelty is seen in the abandoned fur warehouse over which the characters live, and the attempt to preserve something forever in the stuffed birds the Captain has filled the house with. There's also birds trapped in the warehouse itself, not to mention the budgie being smuggled by Joshua Blake in the opening half-hour, as seen here:

The production from Tom O'Brien particularly brings out the piece's black humour. Cougar is a sociopath whose plans for Foxtrot are unforgivable (although at least he plans to leave him alive afterwards, so again, by Ridley standards... pretty mild) and the details of this particular seduction have shocked even Captain Tock, but whose self-involvement makes him a great comic foil. The scene where Cougar needs the elderly, fur-clad Cheetah Bee (Ania Marson) to remind him of his youth compared to her age is great, but his real nemesis (and the best character in a play full of them) is uninvited guest Sherbet Gravel, Foxtrot's girlfriend, pregnant by his dead brother.

Nancy Sullivan is brilliantly gleeful as Sherbet, whose non-stop catchphrases of "babe" and "bless 'im" don't disguise the fact that she's got Cougar's number from the word go, and is intent on jabbing at his Achilles heel all evening. The only real hole I can pick in the production is that the focus on dark humour leaves some of the menace in Cougar's response toned down, meaning the shock ending is a bit abrupt if you're a newcomer to the playwright's work.

Laurie was one such newbie, and it does seem that most people, myself included, can't quite tap into Ridley's style on a first visit, but given how well Laurie responded to most of the play I think The Fastest Clock in the Universe is a better introduction to the writer than most. He did also mention that Ian Houghton isn't really bald enough to warrant the obsession with it that Captain Tock has - indeed, it's not too surprising that his speeches were written by a man who wears a hat indoors. But hairline aside I liked Houghton's naturalistic take on the character in the middle of all this sinister weirdness, which makes his complicity in it all the more uncomfortable. Overall this isn't quite a perfect Clock, but close enough for me.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe by Philip Ridley is booking until the 30th of November at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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