Miss Dee arrives. She’s from the newly-created DSRCDH: “Department for Social Regeneration through the Creation of Dream Homes.” She makes Ollie and Jill an offer which is surely too good to be true: Miss Dee explains it’s a government project inspired by the Amazon jungle plant, “The Shimmering Glimmering Tree”, which looks drab until you polish one berry, at which point, all the berries begin to shine until “the whole tree sparkled like treasure.” To have a free house, all the Swifts have to do is do it up: Jill has excellent taste, Miss Dee notes, and Ollie is a dab hand at DIY.

The dream home in question is a shell: it needs rewiring, has no hot water, and is in a deserted suburban development mainly inhabited by wandering tramps. But Jill and Ollie, with a baby on the way, take the chance. They do renovate the property, to their own astonishment, in a macabre and surreal method in which Ridley’s dark humour begins to wax lyrical. And, sure enough, Gilead Close begins to sparkle as predicted, with aspirational neighbours moving in to take advantage of the property boom, culminating in a shiny new shopping centre round the corner, offering “The Never Enough Shopping Experience: because enough is never enough.”

Radiant Vermin has two strengths. One is its macabre twist, which I won’t spoil for you: but just watch Ridley’s twist grow, strengthen and become ever more prominent, with the characters’ actions becoming ever more hysterical and desperate. While maintaining a tone of cheerful surrealism, Ridley slides in questions about religious hypocrisy, our attitude to the homeless, consumerist greed and neighbourly one-upmanship. You are swept up into the joke: but afterwards, walking away through the streets of Soho with beggars on every side, I felt a kind of horror at the hilarity which only applies to the very best of black humour. You almost can’t believe you laughed at it, but you did.

The second strength is the sheer talent on stage, directed by David Mercatali. Sean Michael Verey begins Ollie as a quiet, ordinary bloke, but steadily builds him into an extraordinarily brilliant character performance, including two hilarious one-man fight scenes, in which he fights his invisible assailant while commentating on and explaining each punch in real time, causing the audience to collapse with laughter. The speed of Ridley’s writing, and Verey’s natural comic instincts, seem made for each other. Gemma Whelan is wonderful as his socially-upward wife Jill, a nice girl who likes to get her own way, cheerfully sacrificing her morals until guilt begins to eat away at her. The play builds to an insane crescendo in the fabulous “Party from hell” scene, which has Whelan and Verey playing no fewer than eight different characters, all with scrupulously distinctive accents, body language and gestures, in bewilderingly rapid exchanges, reducing the audience to helpless, uproarious laughter. Amanda Daniels is bewitching and unsettling as Miss Dee, the devilish Fairy Godmother figure, and heartbreaking as the shattered vagrant Kay.

– Charlotte Valori

Box office: http://sohotheatre.com/whats-on/radiant-vermin/, 020 7478 0100, until 12 April

Rating: five 5 Meece Rating


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