[The following contains spoilers.]
Horror is the most difficult aesthetic for a Fringe theatre company to authentically master. For this reason, Stewart Pringle’s 2012 production “As Ye Sow” holds a significant place in the canon of Tychy reviews because Pringle’s play has been the only one to ever really scare me. Yet the subjectivity of horror is just as problematic to contemplate critically as it is to dramatise. If you admit to being frightened by something, well other audience members – perhaps, mortifyingly, a majority – might have found it to be boring or ridiculous. Rishi Pelham’s “Pizza Delique” is additionally problematic because it is a lengthy, complicated play, thematically, and in its cumbersome staging, and also in the debris of its detail. But by God, the horror is good. This production knows what it wants and it sets out to get it as aggressively and unscrupulously as an Irishwoman who is fighting in a department store.
When we arrive the stage is laid out as an Italian restaurant – the sort of little place tucked up in a shoebox, with wilting 1970s décor, which is invariably located across the road from a theatre. We begin with a smart, contained scenario in which a man enters the restaurant and joins a woman who is sitting alone. They introduce themselves to each other as Heath (Corin Silva) and Sally (Rhiannon Williams). They chat nervously; it is obviously a blind date. Then, however, Heath has caught the eye of another woman at the next table, and she is on her feet. It is a mix up – Heath has sat down at the wrong table. The awkwardness intensifies until the luckless first woman has to leave.
In contrast to the quietly spoken Sally, the second woman, Clarissa (Yasmin Al-Khudhairi), is brash and laddish. The subsequent conversation is apparently interminable and it is made as difficult to follow as if we were really eavesdropping in a restaurant on a couple at the next table. Music tinkles overhead, whilst non-speaking diners murmur and clatter all around. Suddenly, however, something amazing has happened.
There is an interval.
The last time that I had experienced an interval at the Fringe, the building was on fire. The practice is in fact more of a rarity in Fringe theatre than it is to discover a successful horror play. The audience is incredulous and openly annoyed. Everything will pause for fifteen minutes? And indeed the play does, in its own way, pause, although the fourth wall remains standing and the appearance of the restaurant is maintained exactly as before but without any audible dialogue. Almost the entire audience makes a run for it but I alone decide that the play is still in operation. I stay back to keep an eye on this suspicious exercise. What are they all up to? Deliberately or accidentally (i.e. it might just be an interval), the interval comes to harmonise with this play’s characteristic unpredictability.
When we are back, the horror starts to roam about. Clarissa’s drink has been spiked and Heath’s cards, contrary to in a weird, earlier card-playing scene, are at last on the table. “Pizza Delique” becomes fully conscious, or it concentrates with all of its powers, during the subtly hallucinatory moments when Clarissa is passing out. There are tricks and surprises around the tables, more unpredictability and a choking sense of dread. Thankfully, this story will no doubt end when Clarissa is carted out into the night – the actors cannot, after all, feasibly clear so much scenery off the stage.
But then they do and so, horribly, we are taken back to Heath’s flat and forced to watch. It is all as nightmarish as it promises to be.
A couple of details. Over dinner, Heath tells an inadvisable joke about simulating sex with a piece of human excrement (this will be actually a window into his soul), whilst later, back at his flat, there is hardcore pornography visibly playing on his laptop (the legality of this aspect of the production is, incidentally, questionable). There is simultaneously a large cross visible above the lighting rig, for our venue is St Augustine’s Church, which is still used as a Presbyterian place of worship. God must be more liberal than I had thought if He can invite these scenes into His house. Of course, I mention all of this admiringly.
This play is orthodoxically Lynchian, with the same soundscaping and judicious choice of music as in any of David Lynch’s films. I enjoy the Lynchian aesthetic but it today seems as traditional a guilty pleasure as tucking into cheap pizza.
“Pizza Delique” is evidently nervous about staging its graphic depiction of rape. Horror is perhaps rather too innocent a genre to explore a theme which is normally viewed amongst Fringe theatremakers as requiring delicacy and didacticism. Pelham’s solution is to largely show that Clarissa gives as good as she gets. After her torments, she is still able to laugh at her “pathetic” attacker and his exposed penis. I was uncomfortable with how much sympathy this made me feel towards the snivelling rapist, a feeling which is also generated from the play’s apparent proposition that a night out with the calmer Sally might have somehow pacified his beastly urges. On the other hand, “Pizza Delique” does not just dump a load of leaden opprobrium on to Heath, which is more likely to lose audiences. A scene in which the Italian restaurant’s (yes) Russian waitress (Lucy Oglesby) sees the drink being spiked, but ostensibly does nothing, provides a necessary moral current.
More anarchy awaits at the end. When are we meant to applaud – where have half the cast gone – why are they reassembling the restaurant? Yet you shouldn’t awaken from a nightmare with niceties.