The Old Red Lion Theatre last year hosted a revival of Philip Ridley's fifth adult play, the violent and disturbing Mercury Fur. There's no doubt that Ridley writes to shockm but what's clever and exciting about his work is that he holds up a mirror to society and explodes our comfortable version of reality. 

In his second such work, The Fastest Clock in the Universe, here receiving its 21st anniversary outing, there is a slightly diminished "in-yer-face", but nevertheless ahead-of-its-time, manifestation of the grim, harsh existence of the obsessive, selfish and vain culture that threatens to undermine our faux-respectable lifestyle. Ridley gives his characters acute allegorical names as if to suggest that this isn't really our world in which these people exist so we needn't worry. But it's all a little too close to home. 

The central character here is anti-hero Cougar Glass (Joshua Blake). He is narcissistic, arrogant and has "stomach muscles that tense like rows of packed walnuts". His middle-aged companion, Captain Tock (Ian Houghton), is a collector of stuffed birds which are mounted on the grimy walls of his flat, part of a converted fur factory. Emerging in just his tight white underpants and sunglasses, Cougar plonks himself on the sofa in front of a tanning lamp and leaves no doubt that he is the gravitational force around which the world is meant to revolve. It is Cougar's umpteenth "19th birthday party" – an event he arranges when he has identified a young lad he wants to devour. Captain is preparing the flat for this party-for-three, fully aware of Cougar's predilection, though disturbed that the boy due to arrive is only fifteen.  

Captain is very careful not to allude to Cougar's real age (which we discover later) but even the mere subject of time seems to send him into some sort of epileptic frenzy which can only be soothed by the intoning neighbour and elderly landlady Cheetah Bee (Ania Marson, in a full-length fur coat) whose late husband used to skin the animals alive – a horrific account of which is given. She calms Cougar with "I am at the end and you are at the beginning" several times. How this situation arose is a mystery.

Eventually, the boy, Foxtrot Darling (Dylan Llewellyn), arrives, wide-eyed and gormlessly smiling but eager to please. He has styled his hair in a quiff just for Cougar, which pleases him no end. But plans go awry as he has brought his pregnant girlfriend with him, Sherbert Gravel (Nancy Sullivan). As she sets about undermining them all, taunting Cougar with his mortality, things inevitably take a turn for the worse, but not before Foxtrot has succumbed to Cougar's charms.

There are strong performances from all the cast (as Cougar, Blake is brilliantly manipulative throughout) but Sullivan excels as the East London wise girl: she is irritating but lovable and, saying "babe" in every sentence, she counters the ominous reality with unrelenting hilarity.  

Tom O'Brien's direction is tight. Act One is essentially a two-hander and there is a tendency for the momentum to lag as the main foreboding theme is introduced. Act Two, however, is dynamic – with the party in full swing before the explosive ending – and black humour carries the piece along. Ridley's trademark quirkiness (which in this piece often crosses over into the shocking), makes The Fastest Clock in the Universe well worth catching. 

The Fastest Clock in the Universe, at Old Red Lion Theatre

This 21st anniversary production of Philip Ridley's contemporary classic is a harsh lesson to the vain and deluded. Shockingly funny, but certainly not for the faint-hearted. At the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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