Review: Radiant Vermin at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, which sees a young couple resort to murder to secure their dream home, is a disturbing supernatural fantasy based on an equally depressing reality. With house prices still prohibitively high for so many, the play asks us to question not only what we would be willing to do to get on the property ladder – but also where we’d be prepared to stop.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Jill (Laura Janes) and Ollie (Matthew John Wright) are a young couple, recently married and looking forward to the birth of their first baby. As they despair of ever escaping their rented flat on a grotty estate, they’re invited by the mysterious Miss Dee (Emma Sweeney) to join a government scheme that will give them a free house, on the condition they take care of all the renovations. The couple jump at the chance, knowing it’s the only way they’ll be able to afford their dream home. When Ollie accidentally kills a homeless man on their first night, only to discover their kitchen has been magically transformed into the one they saw in Selfridges, he and Jill realise what they need to do, and set out on a murderous mission to complete the rest of the house. But then their baby is born, and new neighbours move in – and pretty soon Jill and Ollie find they can’t stop “renovating”, despite the terrible cost.

The play takes the form of a “confession” to the audience; Jill and Ollie hope if they can make us understand then it’ll justify what they’ve been doing and, more importantly, allow them to continue. Ridley’s play is a damning comment not only on the housing crisis but more broadly on the ease with which human beings adjust our moral compass to suit our own needs, implicating not only its characters but also the audience. Jill and Ollie seem like nice, normal people; the way they tell their story is very funny and engaging, and in spite of ourselves we find ourselves both liking and relating to them.

This is due largely to winning performances from Laura Janes and Matthew John Wright, who quickly build a rapport with the audience and bring the story vividly to life with the aid of absolutely no set or props. The action in Dan Armour’s production takes place against a stark white backdrop, and almost everything that happens is not seen but described by Jane and Ollie, inviting us to imagine, perhaps, our own dream home taking shape around them. Although excellent throughout, the pair’s stand-out moment comes towards the end of the play, at a birthday party for Jill and Ollie’s baby son, when the two actors play between them around twelve different characters – a high-speed tour de force that leaves both actors and audience breathless.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Though the majority of the stage time belongs to Jill and Ollie, it’s clear from the start that they’re not at all in command of the situation. Despite appearing only twice, all the power is in the hands of Emma Sweeney’s Miss Dee, who calmly manipulates and seduces the couple into taking her deal. There are enough clues scattered throughout the play to help us figure out Miss Dee’s true identity, but even without them it doesn’t take a genius to understand who – or what – we’re looking at.

Deeply disturbing but undeniably funny, Radiant Vermin is a cleverly written play that turns the spotlight ultimately on its audience. We all like to think we wouldn’t take the deal – but in a world where materialism reigns and enough is never enough, can we ever really know for sure?

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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