The mark of quality in student productions of original writing – of which James P. Mannion’s new play “Ridley’s Choice” is certainly a fine specimen – is in being able to engage with contemporary concerns and shed new light on this changing world without overburdening the play with details that narrow its concerns and mark it with a definite expiration date. And this engaging piece of satiric comedy-drama is nothing if not timely. It follows the struggles of failed playwright George Ridley, who escapes from disillusionment and despair by living alone in a cabin in the woods, only to find the society he’s been so desperate to hide from force itself on him. It surfaces first in the form of a teenager who’s hunting with his iPhone for the next YouTube viral video, and then a journalist looking to profit from a controversial “prophet” that can no doubt be commodified into excellent clickbait. The “Choice” of the title refers to Ridley’s struggles to keep his ideals pure, resisting the lure of publicity and profit. Despite the references to YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, blog journalism, and other bits and pieces of contemporary set-dressing, the dialogue does not seem like it would date too badly 10 years from now. The playwright takes great care to make sure that the satire is situational rather than slap-stick, and that the biting dialogue builds its comedy not from cheap one-liners but from a sustained engagement with the precarious positions the characters are placed in. The plot, with a few snags here and there, is well-balanced, with scenes that build towards clearly-defined climaxes. Mannion is even willing to draw explicit parallels between Ridley’s situation and Thoreau’s “Walden”, reaching back in history to emphasize the timeless nature of the individual’s struggle against society. In other words, the play is built on sound foundations.
Director Jack Saville’s rendering of this claustrophobic play is realized perfectly in its visual stage design, although it leaves some room for improvement in the quality of acting. The staging is semi-in-the-round, with the set squashed into a corner of the black box theatre, while audiences are ranged on two sides to complete the square. This is a rare departure from the standard configuration of the Burton Taylor Studio. Naturally, the actors have a much smaller space to act in, which, combined with the fact that the the play is supposedly in an expansive natural setting, creates a nice paradox. The only attempts at creating an illusion of broad space are in the audio-visual interludes, crafted with great attention to detail by Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell and Alex Newton, though these interludes constantly undermine themselves by serving as ironic Brechtian devices. George Varley’s performance as Ridley conveys quite effectively the feverish madness of a hermetically-sealed life, and the supporting cast is certainly decent, especially Archie Thomson as a very funny Clive.
As a whole, the ensemble made many correct choices in performance. However, the execution on a purely technical level did leave something to be desired. There was not much sense of fitting their performance to the intimate size of the space; they instead chose too often to declaim their lines at each other. The movement of the characters was also uniformly strained, as if they were too afraid to have their back to the audience for even an instant. Consequently, more than once, the actors drew attention away from the action and to themselves by walking in an unnatural manner. In this case, having boldly committed to staging the play in-the-round, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have been less fussy about which way the actors ought to face. Varley, in particular, relied on physical mannerisms as a clutch and often bordered on telegraphing Ridley’s madness to the audience, rather than allowing his madness to emerge in a more subtle manner. The makeup design also had to take some of the blame – Ridley is described as an unwashed madman, yet there was a distinct lack of leaves in his hair and mud on his face, as if he were little different from a comfortable, smooth-skinned Oxford student.
It is hard to evaluate how much of Ridley’s lack of subtlety was intentional: all the characters in the “real world”, whether it is the youth, the journalist Polly Freeman, the interviewers Olive and Darius, or Ridley’s daughter Lucy, were more restrained in their performances than Ridley and Clive, who seemed to inhabit a different world altogether. Ali Ackland-Snow as Polly revealed just enough Machiavellian scheming to let the audience in on her motivations, but without turning her character into a stereotype; Clare Saxby and Keelan Kember’s bickering and inability to focus on the job at hand displayed great comic timing; while Chloe Wall drummed up as much sympathy for Lucy as she could without overstepping into the maudlin. In this context, Varley’s overacting could understandably be explained as a conscious decision; however, I still contend that there was an element of nervousness to his performance, and the way he returned to certain safe gestures, such as sticking his hands in his pockets (even when at an awards ceremony!), is perhaps evidence for that. Nonetheless, technical faults aside, it is hard to fault Varley’s interpretation of his character on a conceptual level.
The text is not quite perfect but is consistently ambitious, setting itself high aims and meeting most of them. Certain subplots, such as Olive and Darius’s misunderstanding about the nature of their relationship, add tremendously to the central concerns of the play: there is no genuine connection between the two characters, although one of them deceives himself into thinking there is – this breakdown in communication serves as a constant reminder of the life Ridley has been escaping from. However, there are certain interludes, most notably erotically-charged dream sequences, that do nothing apart from rehashing what we already know, and I suspect they were kept in because of how funny they were in isolation, and not for their importance to the structure. A more significant flaw of the play is that, for much of the middle section, the audience is far ahead of the characters. Not wanting to give spoilers, it takes Ridley an inordinately long time to reach the same conclusion about Clive as the audience does, which came off not as intentional dramatic irony, but as the author being unable or unwilling to outsmart the audience. The social commentary of the play could also be strengthened with more attention to the concrete workings of institutions and social forces: there is perhaps not enough exploration of how exactly the media can commodify a person’s image, or exactly how controversy can lead to revenue. The media, in this play, is a simplified and monolithic force, and Ridley’s rise to fame has very little context to ground it – of all the madmen in this world, why him, specifically? What makes him especially brandable? These were unexplored questions that, if unpacked, would have given the play even greater depth. Then again, I might be setting an unrealistic bar. What the play does it achieves very well, and it deserves to be seen, discussed, and pondered over.
‘Ridley’s Choice’ runs at the Burton Taylor studio until Saturday 29th November. For more information or to book tickets please visit their website.
We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook