Good Buzz fill the Boys School of Smock Alley with clay for an energetic performance of Philip Ridley’s acclaimed two-hander.
A red line separates the audience from the players, nestled on an artificial grassy mound rising out of real clay. A man (Stephen Tadgh) and a woman (Ashleigh Dorrell), his attempts at tenderness shook off as irritants. And then the play begins with speculations of imaginative acts of violence as poetry. Tension between the couple is obvious, her attempts at a romantic flashback to her preparations for a party are scuppered by his flights of fancy about ruling a desert island. She joins his desert island fantasy to undercut his bagatelles and claim it for herself. And then as their monologues continue it becomes clear that the party both are preparing for in their flashbacks is where they first met, and began down the slippery slope of love that has led them to their current impasse of resentment and boredom.
Tender Napalm is a hard old slog. Director Sarah Finlay stages the material well with nice use of lighting to pinpoint emotion within these conjured mindscapes, and Tadgh is boundlessly energetic and winning in his portrayal of the optimistic romantic man, but Philip Ridley’s script is a 45 minute lunchtime show unfeasibly elongated to 85 minutes. The revelatory end is obvious from a mile, there is even a hint of (500) Days of Summer about how it informs the desert island, and the originality of the game of loving descriptions of violence disappears once you realise it was contemporaneously used in Sarah Polley’s film Take This Waltz. Exactly how Ridley’s script came to be held up as a masterpiece of new British writing about passionate love is a puzzle given its clumsy handling of a couple grieving their young daughter.
Boys School in Smock Alley is an infuriating theatrical space, permitting no entrances or exits with any subtlety unless one builds a staircase as part of the set. Such claustrophobia focuses attention on the script to an unhealthy degree. And it became noticeable, as an overwhelmingly female crowd whooped up everything the woman said, that Ridley attempts to create a ‘female voice’ in his play by indulging in unapologetic misandry. The man’s descriptions of imaginary violence all end in ecstatic death, whereas the woman explicitly talks of horrifically maiming him, and leaving him alive, blinded and castrated. The man is bombastic and friendly, the woman is, at their first meeting, bossy, and in the present accusatory and petulant. That a female audience lapped this up without thinking it at all problematic was more interesting and revealing than anything Ridley wrote.
Tender Napalm features good performances and assured sound and lighting design, but its script is flabby, lacking in real insight, and, ultimately, disturbingly sexist.
Tender Napalm continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until the 9th of July.