First published in The Times, Friday August 21 2015
The new play from Philip Ridley is billed as a companion piece to Dark Vanilla Jungle, the artist and writer’s 2013 Edinburgh Fringe premiere about the sexual grooming of a teenage girl by a couple of older men. This new monologue is just as unsettling, the theatrical equivalent of a slow-motion car crash. Like Dark Vanilla Jungle, which featured the brilliant Gemma Whelan, the stomach-churning tension of Ridley’s latest work is given the required humanity by Sean Michael Verey in the title role.
Donny Stixx is a hero for our times, a teenage boy with an unabashed and unedifying hunger for fame. His chosen metier is magic (the act he performs in shopping centres is entitled “Donny Stixx, the boy with tricks”) but he has also written 50 episodes of a Saturday night show for Netflix. As a child, desperate to forge a connection with his distant, mentally unbalanced mother, Donny is delightfully flamboyant, but his routine has acquired a touch of the grotesque by his mid-teens. Ridley telegraphs early on that the boy’s quest for superstardom will end badly. All we as his audience have to do is perch on the edge of our seats and watch through our fingers.
Sean Michael Verey (above) as Donny Stixx
Verey’s multifaceted performance is more than a match for the nuances of the writing. Not only does he succeed in eliciting sympathy for an essentially creepy figure, he does a remarkable job of conjuring supporting characters and the grubby locations Donny views through tinsel-tinted glasses, literally from thin air. The burst of violence that wraps everything up is facile and unconvincing but the script is also queasily insightful on the celebrity culture that fuels Donny’s ruthless desire for fame.
Meanwhile, David Mercatali directs Ridley’s material at a pace that proves a little relentless at times. When Verey comes back on at the end to take his bow with his shirt sticking to his back, the standing ovation he receives is as much for his physical stamina as his undeniable acting talent.