Barricade Arts’ latest production, Tender Napalm, offers an uncanny symmetry to their debut production Mercury Fur, another Philip Ridley play which took the equivalent Pilch slot last year. Perhaps this overlap too greatly influenced what I was expecting, for I was surprised to find Tender Napalm such a delicate and sensitive piece, a romantic but bruising two-hander that explores a provocative language of love through a tapestry of stories.
Hannah Masters gives a sensitive, nuanced performance as the Woman that reaches its most impressive heights in the excitable, child-like ways she acts out the stories she and the Man imagine for themselves. James Walsh is equally strong, playing the Man with an endearing, slightly rough quality that allows him to bring out the humour in the play. However, the triumph of the play is not in the individual performances, but in the way the actors work together. Their dynamic relationship emits constant sparks; from chasing sea monsters to imagining a child’s encounter with a unicorn, the energy that Marsters and Walsh inject into these moments of story-telling is phenomenal. Their complete commitment creates almost palpable worlds, as space, movement, and text all whirl together in highly engaging and endearing sequences that make excellent use of staging in the round. This is best exemplified by a sequence made up of a crossfire of single words, that sees the actors leap and bound across the stage with captivating energy and excitement. John Paul’s lighting and Jonny Danciger’s sound are intricately constructed, and it is no small compliment to be able to say that they also feel intuitive – they seamlessly blend together, allowing the production to better negotiate moments between stories that could otherwise seem fragmentary.
For a play that has nine trigger warnings in the event description alone, I was a little surprised that violence didn’t bear a stronger presence in the production. Whilst the language of sexual images involving bullets and grenades is harsh and sometimes shocking, their delivery was tender and understated, so there was never a real sense of danger or brutality. Perhaps this was the point: to disconcertingly normalise the extreme romantic language that Ridley deploys. However, I feel this lack of volatility slightly prevented the play from fully ricocheting between the incredibly savage and incredibly tender extremes that the language invites, and that Ridley is famous for. That being said, the incredible, fragile intimacy that was established between the characters in lieu of this was also the play’s greatest success. Marsters and Walsh create a powerful, protective relationship rather than one of explosion and lust, and it is beautiful to see it unfurl over the course of the play. To craft such connection out of a sometimes fragmented and fantastical text is no easy feat, and director Catriona Bolt has done well to bring out the emotional vulnerability of the characters.
Ultimately, the focus of this production of Tender Napalm seems to be stories and what they can to do us – how they can entertain and deceive, but ultimately protect us. It’s not the message I was expecting from a Ridley play, but it’s one that is impeccably and sensitively executed. The imagination, care and energy that has gone into this production are all abundant in equal measure. I look forward to Barricade Arts’ 6th week Hilary Ridley slot next year.