Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 8 May
, 2007

Philip Ridley once joked that a recurrent theme in his work was "mutilating children". Another, only slightly less obvious, preoccupation is brotherhood. Since his screenplay for The Krays, Ridley's work has been peopled with pairs of boys or young men in relationships that are both protective and abrasive. In Leaves Of Glass, what at first seems to be Steven's concern for his half-cracked artist younger brother Barry is gradually revealed to be the culmination of a history in which Steven is probably largely responsible for his bruv's current condition. Their accounts of reality compete, both in the present (why has Steven's pregnant girlfriend Debbie left home?) and in the past, with radically differing accounts of the time around their father's suicide ten years earlier, when they were aged 15 and 10. Our senses of the respective characters' reliability and sympathy shift ever and anon during the two uninterrupted hours of playing time – probably half an hour too long.

Sometimes Ridley must feel damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. His last play Mercury Fur (also starring Ben Whishaw, who here makes a darkly compelling Steven) drew both wild plaudits and outraged condemnation of its supposed degeneracy; in contrast, the problem with Leaves Of Glass is that there is too little of the writer's characteristic poetically grotesque vision, as if he were the offspring of Garcia Lorca and Clive Barker. The childhood violence at the core of this tale is not only relegated to an indirect account by Barry (Trystan Gravelle) from a distance of years, but the act itself – sexual abuse – remains unnamed, only the details around it being obsessively recalled. Too much of the rest of the play is scene-setting of one sort or another: instead of creating a shadowy fantastical world for his characters, Ridley locates them in prosaic east London, and as a result too much of the family banality feels not even as dramatic as an average episode of EastEnders. Lisa Goldman, in her first direction since taking the helm at Soho, gives the piece a dark, spare production devoid of fripperies except for twin stage revolves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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