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A CurtainUp London London Review
Tender Napalm

by Sebastian King

I could squeeze a bullet between those lips. Point first. And you would accept this bullet in your palette. It would feel as natural as a pearl in the palm of an oyster. — Red
Tender Napalm
Lara Rossi and Tom Byam Shaw
(Photo: Camilla Greenwell)
Although it may seem that London has reached Ridley saturation point this year, with four professional productions having already been mounted, the return of Tender Napalm to Southwark Playhouse following its acclaimed run last year and a successful national tour is certainly cause for celebration.

The play begins suddenly, as Man (Tom Byam Shaw) and Woman (Lara Rossi) burst onto the stage, chasing each other around the stage, playing what looks to be some sort of drama game with each other, accompanied by loud music. Before long they take up positions sitting on chairs at either end of the long avenue performance space, and as they begin to talk, our focus switches from one to the other, the effect on the audience resembling a fiercely fought match on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

It soon becomes apparent that Man and Woman are a couple whose lives have been turned upside down by some as-yet unnamed tragedy. As the action unravels the couple take each other on fantastical multi-sensory journeys that mythologise their own relationship. As they tell tales of serpents, whales, monkeys and unicorns, we see, smell, hear and feel their experiences as if we were there. The same is true though when the script wanders into darker territory: one particular section explores genital mutilation in graphic detail: this is not theatre for the faint of heart.

William Reynolds's set is simple: a pale grey floor provides the actors with a blank canvas and their words paint stories across it. This blankness is mirrored in their costumes: they wear matching white vests and blue jeans, representing a Gap store vision of Everyman and Everywoman figures. David Mercatali’s visceral direction strips everything back, placing full focus on the text, and the vulnerabilities of the two characters. Under Tom Godwin’s movement direction, both actors give high octane performances, as they leap, crawl, cartwheel, and sweat their way around the stage. Lara Rossi is playful and sexy one minute, bitter and dangerous the next. But it is Tom Byam Shaw's highly charged, explosive performance that really impresses, with the audience erupting into spontaneous applause at the end of one particular monologue.

The play is a celebration of the erotic power of language. As the actors describe in sometimes unbearable detail what they would like to do to each other, they enjoy every rhyme and alliteration, playing around with the words as they leave their mouths. The impact that this has on us is that - in typical Ridley style - we feel simultaneously attracted and repelled. Be prepared for a raucous roller coaster ride of emotions. We may laugh, cringe and hide behind our hands at various points along the way, but when the devastating truth behind these stories finally emerges, it is incredibly moving. We may have been spoilt by the amount of Ridley on offer recently, but this exquisite production showcases this most imaginative of writers at his simplest and best.

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Tender Napalm
Written by Philip Ridley
Directed by David Mercatali

Starring: Lara Rossi & Tom Byam Shaw
Design: William Reynolds
Movement Director: Tom Godwin
Music: Nick Bicât
Running time: One hour 25 minutes (no interval)
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking to 23rd June 2012
Reviewed by Sebastian King based on 11th June performance at Southwark Playhouse, Shipwright Yard, Tooley Street, London. SE1 2TF (Tube: London Bridge)

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