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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: Tender Napalm finds the truth among its chaos

“It’s like they dance through the journey of their relationship”.

Philip Ridley’s Tender Naplam may defy easy description, but in the Twenty Something Theatre production, currently on stage at the Havana Theatre, this odd hybrid of theatre, poetry and movement is at times beautiful, sexy, infuriating, but with an underlying reality that makes it more than satisfying.

An unidentified couple (Claire Hesselgrave and Sean Harris Oliver) share stories. Often the stories are wild fascinations, of tsunamis, unicorns, alien abductions and battling sea monsters. The two, who we discover has together experienced a tragic event, riff off those stories with an often brutal and provocative combination of movement and words.  Filled to overflowing with metaphors, their stories underscore the reality of the devastating pain that lies just beneath.

It is in those lucid moments where the heart-wrenching truth is revealed that is the basis of Ridley’s play and it’s in the discovery of those truths that make Tender Napalm so compelling.

Tender Napalm
Tender Napalm is wrapped inside Julie Casselman’s hypnotic music. Photo by David Cooper.

Hesslegrave and Oliver are at times electric together, and as they move with their bodies and words there is a connection that is at times playful, angry, explosive and heartbreaking. As Oliver hurls invectives, the spittle flies across the stage like stinging acid, and in those moments when their shared tragedy is at the surface, it is simply devastating.

Hesslegrave finds many layers in her performance; at one point she oozes both wrath and love as she talks of cutting off her partner’s cock.

Even in the more fantastic moments of Ridley’s script the two are convincing, which makes those moments when they get to the truth that more crushing; as small details of their tragedy are revealed it is at times difficult to hold back tears.

Director Sabrina Evertt helps immensely by stripping away any artifice. Here we simply get Hesslegrave and Oliver, alone on stage, with only their bodies and voices to tell the story. She is, of course, helped immensely by choreographer Joel Sturrock who, despite two actors not trained as dancers, gets them to do some surprising things. What makes the choreography even more remarkable is that it all must be performed while reciting Ridley’s text.

Everything is wrapped inside Julie Casselman’s hypnotic original music and sound design, rivalling the best that you will see on film, as it emphasizes the transitions, and then quickly disappears into the background.

Even while Ridley spends a little too much time on some scenes, especially in the long sequence at the end, there remains both resonance and a satisfying realization that we’re witness to something different. You really should discover Tender Napalm’s truths for yourself.

Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley. Directed by Sabrina Evertt. A Twenty Something Theatre production. On stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until November 8. Visit for tickets and information.

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