Review: Shivered, Southwark Playhouse ****

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem depicts England as a place worth saving, with Rooster proudly fighting for every inch and corner of our green and pleasant land, summoning mythology and pagan spirits. Philip Ridley’s epic state-of-the-nation play, Shivered, which opened at Southwark Playhouse on March 13th, presents a rather more bleak view of our beleaguered country.  Herein is a thoroughly satisfyingly Ridlean examination of our society;  set in the Essex new-town of Draylingstone, on its own rolling green hill, now blighted by disused car warehouses employed for casual sex games, this is a land with its own mythology and spirits, where children swap YouTube videos of war atrocities, beat one another with rocks, and false Gods rise beneath the altar of capitalism. How much of Ridley’s England would we fight to save?

Uncompromising as ever, Southwark Playhouse has never seemed a less fecund place with Richard Howell’s bleak lighting alternating between illuminating a stark, cold corridor or the hauntingly huge windows of the car warehouse.  It finally resolves on an auroral summer hill before exploding joyously into fireworks.  Anthony Lamble’s naked stage colludes in this bare vision, while Tom Gibbons’ terrifying sound design rumbles darkly around the edges of our consciousness.

Joseph Drake and Josh Williams as Ryan and Jack are youthful but commanding presences, both perfect trailblazers for Ridley’s damaged society; simultaneously ingenuous and pernicious.  Each handle the dramatic twists and turns of their character with ease and skill.  Andrew Hawley, as Gordy is mercurial and charismatic, slipping from charming, but lowly, fairground barker to Barnum-esque showman with consumate ease.  Robbie Jarvis particularly impresses in a controlled, powerful performance which places his character, Alec, at the very heart of the play.

Ridley’s Shivered is his most ambitious opus to date; startling, inventive, witty and invasive

The real star here, however, is Ridley’s perverse dark gift for language and his skill in presenting the excruciating cruelty which underlines love and affection. As Alec explains “it’s like her skin is transparent and I can see all the…all the snakes and scorpions” – Ridley peels back the skin of our fractured society and exposes the rancidification beneath.

When Russell Bolam’s genuinely astute direction captures this, Shivered is spine tingling and Ridley’s sprawling, complex masterwork sings a siren song calling us to his dark world.  When actors fail to accede totally to the grotesque and invidious nature of Ridley’s writing the piece can seem overwritten.  Ridley’s Shivered is his most ambitious opus to date; startling, inventive, witty and invasive. His England is not without hope, but it is never without compromise; may his pen never rest in his hand.

**** 4 stars
Runs until 14th April
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