Review: Piranha Heights

Alex Sorgo 24 January 2018

I left the ADC after seeing this week’s Mainshow, Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights, a little baffled.

Set entirely in the living room of a council flat in East London, the play follows the story of Alan and Terry, two middle-aged brothers who have come back to the flat they grew up in with their mother to argue out which one of them should inherit it. As Alan and Terry confront one another with their own versions of what really happened in the weeks and months leading up to their mother’s death, an array of other characters pass through, wreaking havoc as they go, leaving the brothers spiralling out of control and towards disaster.

Ridley’s work has often been placed in the canon of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre. I am a big fan of immersive, harrowing theatre, but I felt at times that the shock value in this particular production lacked a sense of real energy coming from the actors, and so their threats and accusations could feel oddly unsubstantiated and therefore less substantial. I also found that these occasional lapses in conviction could make it hard to understand the use of some significant props in the show’s second half. The props at first seemed to be representative versions of objects which it would probably have been very hard for a props manager to source: handguns and a baby. But I felt that the reactions of the characters who might be considered ‘mentally stable’ to certain significant incidents involving these props meant that it was hard to tell whether or not we were meant to see these props as being a ‘real’ gun or a ‘real’ baby, or simply a toy version. Ridley’s writing does often play on ambiguities of understanding with intriguing consequences, but this was an ambiguity which was a little confusing rather than intriguing.

However, the energy did seem to pick up a little more after the interval, especially with the arrival of Eleanor Lind Booton as Alan’s mentally unstable son, Garth. Booton’s energy and unnerving stage presence as Garth helped to revive the action and gave the play, which could feel a little random and wandering at times, a sense of urgency and direction.

Perhaps the aspect of this production which has been playing most on my mind is the character of Lilly. Lilly is supposedly a refugee of an unspecified Islamist conflict in an unspecified part of the Middle East, simulates some Muslim customs in a rather twisted way, wears a bizarre array of clothing simulating a hijab with niqab, and speaks a nonsensical made-up language meant to simulate a Middle Eastern language. I came across a column which Ian Shuttleworth wrote in Theatre Record about the play’s original run, which rather neatly summarises how I felt about Lilly:

“a character spouting vaguely Middle-Eastern gibberish which is meant to be Arabic prayer is going to be seen with some justification as insulting – not because we're living in sensitive times and need to be politically correct or whatever, but simply because it has all the unsubtlety and laziness of those 1970s TV sitcoms where Europeans or Mexicans were inherently funny simply because they sounded different, and any stereotypical different sounds would do.”

Overall, this production of Piranha Heights is rather entertaining, and certainly has a very good production value, particularly in its excellent set design by Abby Zucker, and Jonathan Ben-Shaul’s flawless fight choreography. However, lapses in energy from the cast could leave it feeling a little adrift and erratic at times. This is certainly an uncomfortable play to watch, but I’m not entirely sold on whether that is a good or a bad thing.