★★★ | Karugula

What is “Karugula” and what is this play about? I’m not sure that you’ll leave this play with a definitive answer and you may well not even care but it’s an epic journey in this dark imagining of a dystopian world. Prom kings and queens are ritually shot dead, strange cults rule and a twisted version of the Kennedy assassination is a legend that has influenced society as the grassy knoll is reverentially mentioned. This is a sprawling and pleasantly confusing play with non-linear storytelling and a cast of seventy characters played by nine actors in a constantly changing set.

Philip Ridley has been knocking audiences sideways and winning multiple awards for his ‘in-yer-face’ plays since The Pitchfork Disney in 1991. He’s elicited wide ranging critical responses and there are fables of fainting audience members and people stalking out of theatres in disgust. However, to look at his plays as ‘shock’ pieces would be to misunderstand and cheapen his work. His worlds are violent and terrifying but his skill is in integrating horror with the everyday world that we know. His work draws you in politely and then grabs you with an icy hand and refuses to let go. He’s also witty and wise, with a wry sense of the state of the world. Karagula is no exception. Ridley fans have learnt to never know what to expect from each new play. Here he’s crafted a fable reflecting modern society and the world’s political tensions but has set it the framework of an apocalyptic science fiction story. Much like Alistair McDowell’s ‘X’ and Anne Washburn’s ‘Mr Burns’ that both recently divided critical opinion; this is an unusual theatrical foray into an infrequently explored genre.

Cheerleaders chant about assassinations, 1950’s housewives brag of murders in pink kitchens and milkshake parlours aren’t places you’d really want to be. Figures in white clothing inhabit starkly lit interrogation boxes and talk of concentration camps whilst Mad Max style renegades pick over ruins. It’s tongue in cheek and thankfully self-mocking throughout. There are insane touches reminiscent of a 1970’s Doctor Who episode intercut with David Lynch style eeriness. The science fiction references are frequent. Extremism, jingoism and patriotism abound. It’s a mad, mad world but one not far removed from our own. The dialogue is perplexing, odd and hilarious. Ridley’s hallmark style of slowly imbuing the innocuous and banal with sinister overtones works well here.

The play is overlong at over three hours and is by no means perfect with uneven tones and scenes that feel extraneous. Emotion is rarely poignant or moving (with the exception of a beautiful scene surrounding a mother who’s daughter was taken from her). It’s housed in a disused ambulance station in Tottenham Hale. The production is shaky at times and Shawn Soh’s constantly changing set and the script’s moving focuses of action although impressive, are too distracting. Regardless of any flaws, the acting is skilled and Jethro Cooke’s throbbing ambient soundtrack is a suitable accompaniment.

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Overall it’s an intriguing play but feels less accessible and immediately beguiling than some of Ridley’s prior work.

Karugula plays at the Styx Theatre until the 9th of July 2016

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About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.