This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 27 January 2016.
If you are going to base your play around an incredibly slow two-hour tension build, it might not be the best idea to give it a title which implies narrative speed. Dark, grotesque and unremittingly morbid, The Fastest Clock in the Universe is one of the bleakest plays to hit Oxford in recent memory, backed up by strong performances and a slickly confident production. The problem, sadly, was in the writing department. With a running time of nearly two hours this is very long for the Burton Taylor Studio, and what this play needed most was an editor. Had it been half as long, it would have been twice as good.
The play opens with someone walking on stage and declaring “I’ve just had a shocking experience!”, and this play is certainly that, if nothing else. Set entirely in a squalid flat of no clear location, the play focuses on the uneasy relationship between manipulative narcissist Cougar (Jack Morris) and nervous eccentric Captain (Max Reynolds). Cougar’s aggression and insecurity constantly threatens to explode into actual violence, and we become increasingly aware that Captain is living in fear of Cougar, even as he visibly adores him. It’s a darkly absurdist take on an abusive relationship, further complicated by the interventions of an elderly and slightly mad landlady and a pair of guests in the form of Foxtrot, a fifteen-year-old boy seduced by Cougar, and his unexpected girlfriend Sherbert. There’s a lot going on here, but it’s all delivered with a frustrating sense of inefficiency.
The biggest problem was one of pacing. We were presented with over an hour of passive-aggressive sniping between Cougar and Captain before we even saw another character, and the dynamic wore thin after about twenty minutes. Cougar can only be surly and selfish, and the Captain melodramatic and put-upon, for so long before it becomes predictable. The guests arrive only ten minutes before the interval, and while things get a bit more lively after that, it does leave one with the distinct impression that the play’s actual premise doesn’t turn up until substantially after the halfway mark. The second half was a definite improvement, with a sense of creeping menace over the tensions between Cougar and Sherbert, but the pace was still glacial even then. Pacing aside, this is not the most subtle of scripts. The symbolism sometimes bordered on parody; one example being the scene in which Sherbert forces everyone to wear Groucho Marx glasses, declaring “We’ll all wear masks!”. You can practically hear the writer shouting: “Do you get it? The glasses represent their fraudulent personas in the context of this conversation and the meaningless pretensions of everyday life!”
This is a shame, because apart from the script, pretty much everything about this production is spectacular. The lighting is moody and atmospheric, making intelligent use of bare bulbs, siren flashes and even candlelight to mark shifts in tone, and flickering on and off to add real tension to Ridley’s script. The set is also terrific, evoking an almost student-accommodation-like squalor, even if the characters’ repeated observations that the place is strewn with toy birds feels a bit odd, given that there are maybe four at most.
The cast are also brilliant. Jack Morris is absolutely mesmerising as Cougar, managing to come across as both completely despicable and irresistibly charming. Max Reynolds is also brilliant, managing to demonstrate emotional range and a sense of humanity through a comically bad bald wig and a pantomime diction. Alexandra Ackland-Snow brings a quiet charisma to an underwritten bit-part as their landlady, Cheetah Bee, and the three of them help make the play’s dénouement into an effective gut-punch despite the flaccid writing. Emily Smith conveys a sense of youthful innocence and adolescent volatility as Foxtrot, and India Opzoomer is charmingly psychotic as Sherbert. Together they make play’s bizarre and twisted character dynamics work, and the surprisingly well-choreographed violence of the play’s climax is clearly the result of a cast working in perfect tandem with one another.
It feels wrong to find fault with a play this ambitious, but The Fastest Clock in the Universe ultimately did not convince me. Well acted, beautifully produced and disappointingly written, the whole is sadly less than the sum of its (generally excellent) parts. There’s a brilliant play here, but it needs extensive editing. At present it’s tempting to say that audiences are better off starting with the second half. Still, it’s encouraging to see ‘In-Yer-Face’ theatre find such prominence and success in Oxford’s theatre scene. Frustrations with the script are ultimately less important than the bravery needed to try it in the first place.