The Fastest Clock in the Universe, an amoral postmodern morality play nominally about humans’ desire for eternal youth, could be described as Dorian Gray, crossed with Eastenders, Pinter and a particularly violent horror film. Typical Philip Ridley, then, although the first half is remarkably tame for a playwright for whom shockingly graphic language and brutal acts make up the texture of his work. Alexander Hartley’s excellent production focuses on the disturbing quotidian and the dysfunctional relationships of this troubling play.
It takes great confidence to stand in one’s underwear in the intimate space of the Burton Taylor Studio. Jack Morris, as Cougar Glass preparing for his annual 19th birthday party, spends the majority of the play in bright blue boxer shorts. The first image of the production is Cougar in pants and sunglasses, flicking through pornographic magazines. Morris’s Cougar was deliciously vain and manipulative, refusing to let himself be touched by his co-habitor (/ former lover?) Captain Tock. He orders him to tweezer out his grey hairs wearing rubber gloves.
Max Reynolds shines as Captain Tock, a bird fancier, antiques-dealer and devoted slave of Cougar, complete with bald cap. He manages to strike the balance between capturing the eccentricity of his character and his humanity, making him the most sympathetic character in the piece (although there aren’t many contenders). He is one of the few characters with a semblance of a moral compass.
Most of the first act, Cougar and Captain’s preparations for the party, is played naturalistically. The set strengthens the naturalistic impression. The spare items of furniture in their dilapidated living space, dominated by a full length mirror, window, table and chairs and naked bulb, is supplemented by a variety of cultivated nicknacks: Captain’s antiques (or, in Cougar’s words, ‘junk’). Perhaps more could have been done with the evocative setting of The Fastest Clock in the Universe, which is, we later find out, a disused furrier factory, now populated by birds.
Towards the end of the first act, an almost imperceptible shift from naturalism to the hyperreal occurs. The entrance of new characters makes the peculiarities of Cougar and Captain seem normal. Cheetah Bee, the eighty-year-old widow of the furrier, is played with aplomb by Alexandra Ackland-Snow. Foxtrot Darling (Emily Smith), a fifteen-year old boy Cougar has lured to the house and Sherbet Gravel (India Opzoomer), his late brother’s girlfriend and his new fiancé, raise the heightened pitch of the drama to comic caricature. Addressing each other continually as ‘babe’, their arrival together makes for a truly awkward birthday party. Sherbet’s efforts to get everyone in the party spirit, with party hats and masks, are hilarious.
Where the production fell down was pacing, although this is perhaps a problem with Ridley’s play, as much as the direction. The dialogue between Cougar and Captain sometimes dragged, making the first act a little slow. Characters often tell each other stories or soliloquise, although their motivation is left hard to discern, which can lapse into self-indulgence. The main themes, clocks/ desire for eternal youth, and casual cruelty, were introduced early on in the play and were not further developed. The eruption of violence at the end of the play seemed underprepared and was obscured by the lighting.
Although The Fastest Clock in the Universe ran a little slow, this powerful production is made by the talent of its cast.