2 December 2014

Piranha Heights at the Old Red Lion Theatre was delightfully weird


I was vaguely aware of the Old Red Lion Theatre having been to the pub downstairs (prior to a visit to nearby Sadler's Wells) but had never been there, or had a particular reason to do so. Then a chance conversation at another Philip Ridley play at the Arcola alerted me to Piranha Heights.

The Old Red Lion is conveniently close to Angel tube and that made it fairly easy to get there, despite being forced to work in Reading that day. I even had time to eat in the pub, a vegetarian Bombay Burrito, though I did get a little nervous over how long it took to arrive. It all worked out in the end.

The theatre was upstairs but the box office was downstairs, in corner of the bar, and I was able to swap my email for a ticket while waiting for my food.

More or less on the dot of 7:30 we were summoned upstairs. It was a rather orderly rush and my years of training for such events meant that I was among the very first up and so was able to bag the front row seat that I wanted.

My first thought was it was rather like the White Bear Theatre, but much bigger, with a rectangular stage surrounded on two sides with seats in an L-shape. The size, but not the shape, were similar to Pentameters. Or, to put it in other words, this theatre in a pub was similar to other theatres in pubs that I had been to.

The stage was set as a somewhat dated living room. Here we met a middle-aged man waiting for somebody. That somebody was his younger brother who, it transpired he had not seen for a some time. We also learned that they were in their Mother's flat, that she had just died and they both had designs on the flat.

Then, much like a JG Ballard novel, the normal became strange and then outright weird.

An awful lot happened and it would be difficult and unhelpful to try and describe all of if; so here are just a few highlights. The younger brother had brought along a young woman and a baby who he had just met and who we wanted to have living in the house. The young woman had an exuberant young man in tow, not the baby's father. She spoke Gibberish. The older brother's teenage son arrived, he was weird in his own right (he spoke to an invisible Jiminy Cricket character). The son and the boyfriend met with a series of whoops and discovered a shared passion for violence and each other. The baby ...

Through this the relationship between the brothers, and with their families, got more complicated too; such as the younger brother suggesting that his nephew loved him more than his father and that he (the nephew) was going to leave his dad and come and live with his uncle in the flat.

The story was fast and chaotic; probably like a ride on Nemesis if I was brave enough to know what that is like. It was exhilarating, thrilling and exhausting. And, like a theme-park ride, reached a natural ending, though this one left me thinking about what was going to happen next to the brothers and to the two young men. Perhaps it was more of a pause than an ending.

There was a question and answer session with the cast afterwards which I stayed for. This gave some insights to their approach to the production, such as doing some rehearsals without words to get the movements right (there was a lot of movement). It offered fewer clues as to what the play was actually about as the cast had different opinions, the brothers thought it was about them but the others disagreed.

It was certainly about the stories we tell each other and how many of these are not true and what that means. Did the son really see Jiminy Cricket, did the others mean it when they said that they believed that they did, and did he believe them when they said that they believed him? You get the idea.

Piranha Heights was a frighteningly deep and complex play which I was able to navigate safely thanks to the superb crew. The ride was a very rewarding experience.

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