Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Fastest Clock in the Universe, Hampstead Theatre

Review: The Fastest Clock in the Universe, Hampstead Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 29.09.2009

In reviving the greatest hits of its fifty year lifespan, the Hampstead Theatre’s celebratory season has never let the aging process slip from its view. The principles governing its curation have turned the theatre into a mausoleum, resuscitating relics to test their obsolescence. Ironic, then, that Philip Ridley’s sinister East End fable should emerge from the archives unblemished, given its protagonist’s alchemic resistance of wrinkles and responsibility.

On his thirtieth birthday Cougar Glass is celebrating yet another nineteenth in the traditional fashion – with cake, alcohol and a well-groomed schoolboy. Surrounded by the stuffed birds peering down from the shelves of the grizzled flat that he shares with the doting Captain Tock, Glass prepares to ensnare himself a younger model. The aviators are on, the vodka is strong and the porn is stashed, only half-concealed beneath the sofa. When Foxtrot Darling, his pubescent of choice, arrives with a copycat quiff and an air of idolatry, festivities seem set to run as planned. What he hadn’t reckoned on – much to the Captain’s delight – is the appearance of Sherbert Gravel, newly engaged to Foxtrot and anything but naive.

There are a host of obvious parallels lurking in Ridley’s 1992 play, both before and after. Strong whiffs of Pinter, Bond and Webster are always detectable and the arresting – if no longer scandalous – denouement clearly ushers in the In-Yer-Face theatre of the following years. Given today’s concerns about growing older, seen as much in Daily Mail lamentations of early-onset adulthood as the anti-aging elixirs that fly off shop shelves and television’s taut faces, it has almost gained weight in the intervening years.

Though there is much to savour about The Fastest Clock, from the black viscosity of its humour to the luscious cruelty of its language and its parade of deliciously warped characters, the narrative’s path offers no surprises once in motion. As soon as we have added Cougar’s explosion at any mention of his real age to the baby bump that appears silhouetted in the doorframe on Sherbert’s unexpected arrival, events can only unfold towards their fatal collision.

Accordingly, the interest lies in how and why the fallout occurs. As such, much of the responsibility rests with Jaime Winstone as the disruptive Sherbert and, on her stage debut, she handles it superbly. A mismatched neon nightmare with peroxide bunches sprouting from the sides of her head, Winstone resembles an unkempt, neglected Barbie caked in cosmetics to compensate. Fizzing round the room and policing the party in a discordant, infantile gargle, she calls to mind Alison Steadman’s iconic 1970’s hostess – only turbo-charged and off the leash, dispensing with niceties and nibbles in favour of vicious home truths.

Elsewhere performances are more uneven. Alec Newman is intelligently cast as Cougar – his tanned Givenchy-ad frame exposed by the weary eyes beneath his shades – but, in the stillness of the second-half, he leans closer to anonymity than the requisite omnipresence. As Captain Tock, Finbar Lynch is a delicate balance of likeable greasiness, forever trapped by the affections he knows to be irrational. However, Neet Mohan fails to trust in his own youth as Foxtrot Darling and ends up affecting the animated naivety of adolescence.

In a weaker production such a charade of boyishness might prove fatally hypocritical, but Edward Dick’s is heartily robust and – thanks to the pinpoint timing of Jaime Winstone – makes the most of its laughter lines.

Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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