Imagine, if you will, Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, Eros and Aphrodite, and Homer and Marge Simpson all trapped on a desert island surrounded by sea serpents, UFOs, unicorns, atomic bombs and tsunamis. I’ll leave that visual with you. On paper it shouldn’t work, but in Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm it really does. This play is captivating and hallucinogenic from the off, and a tour de force that has stayed with me for days. Originally staged back in 2011 at one of my favourite theatres, Southwark Playhouse, Tender Napalm was hailed an instant classic and went on to be multi-award nominated and performed all over the world. Fast forward a decade and one global pandemic later and this tenth anniversary production is the first major London revival of Ridley’s poetic and gut-wrenching masterpiece, and an absolute must see at Islington’s gem, the Kings Head Theatre.
At its heart, although shattered into a million pieces, this play is a love story. There is a man and there is a woman, both as intertwined in each other as barbed wire around a fence. Through a series of narrative threads that admittedly took me a while to get my head round, Tender Napalm explores the suffocating heights and deep voids of their romantic relationship and all the levels of love. As soon as the first line – “I could squeeze a bullet between those lips” – is uttered you are taken on a journey quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before in theatre. One minute we’re on a desert island fraught and fighting, the next at a VIP garden party where first glances are met, and then we’re trapped in a cave or suddenly slaying a giant serpent via riding a unicorn.
Kit Hinchcliffe’s set, comprising a sunken white stage and screen, is really simple and effective. As Man (Jaz Hutchins) and Woman (Adeline Waby) talked about admiring views and debated who was in charge of the thousand rising monkeys, I kept on expecting videos or images to be projected up onto the screen, but they never materialised. We didn’t need them. Through Ridley’s imaginative words that hold and caress you tight, Max Harrison’s superb direction, and the passionate physical performances of Man and Woman, the narrative is visualised perfectly in front of your very eyes. Although a love story, this play is also tinged with grief and, while the plot takes you on an exhilarating and bewildering rollercoaster ride, the final segment when everything is suddenly crystalized and woven together is a magical moment that I overheard us all talking about in the bar afterwards.
Waby as Woman is raw and real. She stumbled once or twice with lines, but it never breaks her or the audience’s focus. I was gripped from the start and found her vulnerable performance, especially the more tender moments post bellowing like Aphrodite from Mount Olympus, brutal and honest. Equally, the dashing Hutchins as Man is compelling and fervent. Using his physicality to perfection, he bounds through his various states of love beautifully and is a beguiling joy to watch. The two together are a dynamic duo and, under movement director Sam Angell’s visionary choreography, command the stage.
Although only 70 minutes long Tender Napalm packs a punch and, while racing through the ‘Hunger Games’ of marriage or accepting the butterflies to moth balls of a relationship, this show doesn’t disappoint. Even as I type these words I find it hard to explain, which is why this production needs to be seen to be believed.
Written by: Phillip Ridley
Directed by: Max Harrison
Movement Direction by: Sam Angell
Set and Costume Designed by: Kit Hinchcliffe
Lighting design by: Holly Ellis
Produced by: Lidless Theatre Company
Tender Napalm plays at King’s Head Theatre until 20 November. Further information and booking via the below link.