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  • Kate Gaul

The Pitchfork Disney

The Pitchfork Disney

Meraki Arts Bar

The Pitchfork Disney enjoys a spirited revival by Virginia Plain Theatre Co at Meraki Arts Bar in Sydney. The play opens with the characters of Presley and Haley, two adults living alone in the East End of London. They live as children subsisting mostly on chocolate and some strange “mummy and daddy’s medicine” which is obviously a drug. No parents, just stories. From their window, they see two men, one of whom is apparently sick. Agitated, Haley sucks on a drugged dummy and goes to sleep. Presley brings the sick man in, who promptly vomits on the floor. This is Cosmo Disney, and he explains that he and his partner are showmen. His sickness is caused by the fact that his act consists of eating insects and small animals. Cosmo emotionally manipulates Presley who tells Cosmo about a recurring dream he has, involving a serial killer named 'The Pitchfork Disney'.

Presley finishes his story and Cosmo's partner arrives—a huge, masked, apparently mute figure named Pitchfork Cavalier. Cosmo convinces Presley to accompany Pitchfork to the shops, promising friendship. When they leave, Cosmo assaults Haley by inserting one of his fingers soaked in medicine into her mouth. The play has an atmosphere of menace; it’s unsettling.

If you have ever spent any time in an acting class, audition room or hanging around young actors, then speeches – complete with verbal flourishes - from Phillip Ridley’s debut play of 1991 may be familiar. Memorably Ridley has is main character Presley describe the killing of a green snake in a frying pan and in another he recounts seeing one kill a mouse in the reptile house of a zoo and then returning home and watching a television programme about a Christian cult who worship snakes. When Presley invites the charismatic Cosmo into the house it transpires that Cosmo himself can be interpreted as being a manifestation of a snake as he eats insects and small animals for a living, claims to have been born hatching from an egg and that he got new skin having unzipped and threw away the skin he had from being a baby.

Critic and leading expert on “In-yer-face theatre”, Aleks Sierz, has cited the play as a pioneering work. In his introduction to the Methuen Classics edition of the play-text, Sierz wrote "The Pitchfork Disney is not only a key play of the 90s; it is the key play of that decade... Its legend grew and grew until it became the pivotal influence on the generation of playwrights that followed. It is a foundation text; it separates then from now." Sierz credits the play with introducing "a totally new sensibility into British theatre [that] signalled a fresh direction for contemporary playwrighting: one that eschewed realistic naturalism, political ideology and social commentary, and turned auditoria into cauldrons of sensation", adding that the play was "an agenda setting work: the era of experiential theatre began here".

Big call. So how does it stack up 30 + years later? Having become familiar with the tropes of “in-yer-face theatre” (both the genuine article and poor imitations) it’s no longer the discombobulation that attends this genre. With the distance of time, we can examine the substance of the play, its structure and challenges it offers to artists and audiences.

Director and designer Victor Kalka creates an immersive setting in the tiny Meraki Arts Bar space. To find our seats, we enter directly into the room of the two siblings. It’s an appropriately drab set-up with functional couch, a window, chairs and table and startling piles of shiny discarded chocolate wrappers everywhere. Nice touch! Victor Kalka’s interest in painted surfaces is on show again here and the finish on the three crème and grit splattered walls is deftly realised. The design renders the space magically much larger, and I suspect this may be an approach that will be repeated by other creative teams. This production opts for the psychologically chaotic over the intensely filthy in its setting. Lighting necessarily floods the room given the pale walls and offers some moody touches as the speeches kick in (designer Jasmin Borsovsky). The quality of the light behind the window - from which the siblings see the strangers on the street – is a terrific moment. It supports the existence of an outside world from which the two grown up children have retreated.

James Smithers as angsty Presley, hunched like a repressed man-child, keeps the necessary pace of the production rattling along. Played by a heart-breaking Jane Angharad, Hayley (the sister) is a resonant character given that she spends most of the production in an unconscious haze on the couch. It’s curious to contemplate whether Ridley could write a character like that now given our contemporary focus on female agency – no matter what comment he wished to make about society’s treatment of women. Harry Winsome is commandant as the showman Cosmo. Red sequinned jacket, flowing hair, sexually anxious – the worst nightmare, if only Haley knew this! Towering over all is James Hartley as Pitchfork Cavalier. Masked, silent, lumbering. Scary. Bedecked with a full-face mask made from what looked like ring pulls. Kalka has assembled a solid ensemble who will settle into their roles over the season.

I was struck by how elegant the writing is for what is a debut full length play. I enjoyed the surrealism, poetry, and muscle of the writing. I appreciated the revival of a classic. Ridley never really met the promise of his Pinteresque beginnings but there’s enough ballast in the text to sustain an entertaining, unsettling, and bizarre event that is The Pitchfork Disney.

Disclosure – I attended the first preview and paid for my ticket.

Kate Gaul


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