Tender Napalm – Love and pain at first sight. (Theatre Review)


Tender Napalm

Brevity Theatre Company and Red Line Productions

Late show at The Old Fitz Theatre

19-30 Jan 2016 – You can grab your tickets here. 

Contained in the breathy moments of initial desire is the heady inevitability of steady decline, claims Phillip Ridley in his two-hander Tender Napalm. And yet Tender Napalm is no masturbatory haven for biological determinists to claim love and connection are merely fronts for genes to reproduce. To love is to discover a new land – but as an explorer with the will to a conquest that includes the obliteration of any previous or subsequent claim to the territory we hold between our legs. Phillip Ridley wants us to examine the possibility that love and desire are not about reproduction of genetic material, rather a battle of perspective when competing narratives are determined to claim authority one over the other. With all the discussion about the multiple forms sexual connection and relationship can take these days, Ridley chooses the heteronormative couple, young, giggling and beautiful in their naivety as the place where the most subversive of human acts takes place; the battle for possession of language and the art of the narrative. yes attraction wakens our genitals, but it has equal impact on all our senses. We smell, we feel, we hear, we taste and we see small details that were invisible in the instant before our beloved appeared. The smell of soil, the curve of a lip, a rustling bush and the still surface of a lake become the poets fuel in that captured moment, and the battle for the language to describe the enormity of sensation begins.


This production of Tender Napalm directed by Alexander Butt introduces us fist to the darker side of love and obsession and then flows right through to the tenderness of initial innocent appropriation in all its naive emotional wilderness. Alex Butt gives a sense of improvised format, scale, sequence and design behind the complexity of love, incorporating both the dramatic unexpected nature of love and the manipulated design behind the need for it. Tender Napalm becomes an albeit short encompassing investigation of stimulation, simulation, archiving, and supplementarity as our couple vacillate between Platonic idealism and Freudian psychoanalysis. At the surface, Tender Napalm seems to pivot around Eros with its full range of complexities and gradations but through the play one gets a overwhleming sense of the importance of friendship and collegiality. This young man and woman, all young men and women, will do well if at the centre of their obsessive need to be loved (by the other or by anyone) is a deep friendship that overrides desire and blossoms into intimate recognition and long-term understanding. Phillip Ridley seems to be telling us that if the initial rewards of love are expressed desire offered and received, then the long-term benefits, that include the pain of being seen, are potent connection that transcends experience. The way Phillip Ridley and Alexander Butt tell it, even the duel threats of cutting off his penis or inserting a grenade into her vagina are part of the creative and frightening journey toward each other. “I love him so much it just turns to hate” as Courtney Love would say.


All this complexity of ideas and rapidity of thought are possible through the great performances of Jordan Cowan as the girl and Tim Franklin as the boy. Cowan adds a level of acerbic strength to her role, giving the impression of independent power when relating that is not as obvious when she is the girl on her own. This made her role all the more striking, the idea that a woman can be more powerful and independent in her relationship with her male lover than she is alone. Extremely interesting and very convincingly portrayed. Franklin is a great counterpart, not only riffing off Cowan but bringing an enormity of individuality to his role, such that he often seems lost in her ocean, but decidedly and deliberately so. The differences of character that the actors bring to each of the roles adds greatly to the satisfaction of Ridley’s point, as well as being warmly immersive when the play is at its more complex and difficult to follow moments.


These performances are accompanied by intense and stark lighting transitions from Ben Brockman that evoke not only the protagonists experience by the audiences journey, an immersive connectedness in their own right and strong sound design by Katelyn Shaw who also plays with both the action on the stage and the almost surreal experience of the audience. tender napalm is one of those narratives that seems disjointed until you get to the end and the enormity of the piece comes crashing down. Brockman’s lights and Shaw’s sound add to the sensations, Brockman through the implication of fantasy and Shaw through the imposition of realism. All these multiple narratives, cohesive in their presentation, give the audience the experience that the show is much larger, longer and deeper than the sum of its parts imply.

Tender Napalm is another great show from Brevity Theatre company, and well worth a trek to the delightful Old Fitz Theatre.