The Fastest Clock in the Universe
Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2009
In Philip Ridley's 1992 black comedy an ageing stud fights off awareness of his fading youth by celebrating every birthday as his nineteenth and seducing a teenager just to prove he can still do it, while his older lover looks on resignedly. But this year's kid brings along his girlfriend.
Ridley's play wears its sources and influences on its sleeve, and elements and whole sequences can be footnoted, not just to the obvious Pinter and Orton, but also to Albee and Ayckbourn - and in every case the reminder of the influence just makes you aware of how much thinner and less effective Ridley's second-hand version is.
The strengths of his play do not lie in his imitations of other writers or in his throwing them together, but in what slips in between the borrowed bits - surprising and frequently moving touches of real human characters and emotions.
The older homosexual being used and abused by the youth he dotes on may have been seen dozens of times before, but Ridley and actor Finbar Lynch make us see a man fully aware of the bargain he has made with fortune, quite happy with the price, and comforted by the very real pleasure of loving.
The foul-talking, harridan-in-training young slag that is the girlfriend may be a cliché, but Jaime Winstone makes her the most alive character onstage, with somebody at home inside determined to grasp her share of life.
Even the stud himself, alternately absurd, pathetic and menacing in Alec Newman's portrayal, shows us passing glimpses of the real and very human panic at ageing that drives him.
Those quick flashes of human reality, which repeatedly catch us unexpectedly, can't all be footnoted to Ridley's influences, and - along with some quite funny sequences, generally generated by the girl and generally at the stud's expense - are the main attractions of the play.
Whether they are enough is another question, because they really do have to be picked out as isolated flashes in an otherwise rather slow-moving and lumpen play.
It takes forever for things to get going - the girl enters as the first act cliff-hanger - and Ridley's style is built on repeatedly stopping the play dead for one character or another to deliver what he would consider a symbolically important aria that you are more likely to experience as a stylistically clashing digression.
The boy tells his life story in unnecessary detail, an otherwise irrelevant neighbour is introduced to describe seeing animals slaughtered, and the older man tells an extended fairy tale that rather clumsily brings in both the play's title and its moral.
Ridley could no doubt justify the inclusion of each of these digressions on symbolic grounds, just as he could explain character names like Captain Tock and Foxtrot Darling and the significance of the constant references to birds.
My point is not that the play shouldn't have a symbolic level, but that these things are brought in clumsily, essentially literary conceits that haven't been made theatrical and thus get in the play's way rather than advancing or enhancing it.
No, the merits of the play will remain in the small bits and pieces that slip in amongst the borrowings and the undigested literary material, and director Edward Dick and the excellent cast deserve all praise for finding and displaying them so effectively.
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Review of The Fastest Clock In The Universe - Hampstead Theatre 2009