Theatre Review: Radiant Vermin @ The Tobacco Factory Bar

by Polly Hember


The darkly macabre play Radiant Vermin came to Bristol for just four nights before its run in London. Written by Phillip Ridley, the ‘master of modern myth’ (The Guardian), this is a gloriously funny and viscerally sharp allegory of the dangers of gentrification that explores the housing crisis of new parents Ollie and Jill. Directed by David Mercatali and designed by William Reynolds, this wicked satire unfolds with playful wit and sharply angled irony, spurred forward by astounding acting and characterisation.

Ollie and Jill (played by the supremely talented Sean Michael Verey and Scarlett Alice Johnson) are expecting parents-to-be living in grimy Red Oceans Estate. A sinister and sassy Miss Dee (Debra Baker) waltzes into their hardworking lives in true fairy god mother fashion and offers them a way out of their working-class poverty. Brandishing a bedazzled contract for the couple to sign, she tells them they have been carefully selected as part of a government scheme to improve derelict areas of town and offers them their Dream House. An excitable Jill and a tentative Ollie move into the dream house with the tired recognition that it will take a lot of elbow grease to do up. However, the plot thickens when an elderly homeless man breaks into their kitchen and after a quick scuffle and accidental fatal shove, the intruder dies. Lo and behold – the body of the vagrant ‘vermin’ dissolves into a glistening shimmer of ‘radiant’ sparkling beads of light, and transforms the dilapidated room into the dream show-kitchen from the shop floor of Selfridges. This is the first of many ruinous ‘renovations’ that the couple embark on as they convince themselves that the ruthless killing of the homeless is acceptable – necessary, even – as they try to (room by room, murder by murder) build a life that they believe their family needs.

The minimalist cast (comprised of only Verey, Johnson and Baker) and set (simply a pristine, empty white set) ingeniously meant that Ollie and Jill’s retrospective justification of their actions was, at all points, centre stage. The quality of the performance enabled every scene they described to be vivid and visceral. Clever script writing and impeccable acting made this possible, with rich scenery being described and actors taking on multiple characters, flitting between roles with conversational and clever delivery that brought the magical script to life.

The quality of the acting, the astounding comic timing and believable chemistry between Verey and Johnson made for an incredible piece of theatre. Verey excelled in physical comedy, provoking side-splitting laughs at multiple points, whether this was describing a timid walk down a flight of stairs to meet the burglar, or impersonating the camp neighbour’s cabaret sing-song. Baker was a delightfully overzealous and omnipotent fairy godmother, but came into her own when she played Kaye, one of the homeless women that the couple would murder to ‘renovate’ the nursery, which showcased her poignant performance that pinpointed the emotional politics in this surreal satire. Johnson’s fine-tuned ability to tread the difficult line between comedy and tragedy was phenomenal, switching between hilarity and hellish mental breakdowns with remarkable vivacity. The play worked up to a hysterical dénouement: Ollie and Jill’s child’s birthday party where Verey and Johnson interchanged between a dozen different characters. In a breath-taking blur of laughs and one-liners, it built up into a climactic explosion of tragicomedy was a true theatrical triumph.​

Ridley’s script explores the ambiguous ethics of twenty-first century consumerism with fierce playwriting, and the brilliant acting and clever staging presents the decidedly likable couple’s actions as begging justifications of their monstrous murders. Gentrification, homelessness and the materialistic middle-class fantasy of the Dream Home are all probed with black humour, and it works to produce a weighty yet light and ludic piece of comedy with sharp teeth. An artful interrogation of modern day polemics, this is a hilarious piece that should not be missed.​

Images by Anna Soderblom

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