THE POLTERGEIST at the Arcola Theatre
“It feels like it came from a young, angsty mind who hasn’t seen or read enough yet but who has a lot of exciting potential”
There are certain trademarks of a Philip Ridley story present, in some formation or other, in pretty much everything he writes: deep unexplained trauma, repression, mania, dark humour and unusual family dynamics. Normally these markers serve as a jumping-off point for nuanced and unexpected ideas- his seminal 1991 play, The Pitchfork Disney, for example, or Tender Napalm, staged only last year at the Kings Head Theatre. But in the case of The Poltergeist, they serve as the entire idea, with no nuance or unexpectedness in sight.
In fact, after the first minute of the script I know exactly what I’m in for: Artist, Sasha (Joseph Potter) tensely prepares to visit his brother for his niece’s birthday party which he desperately doesn’t want to attend, even with his calming, lovely partner Chet in tow. He’s already seething over his favourite face mask being empty, nastily predicting his boyfriend’s behaviours by counting down 3-2-1 before Chet will inevitably knock on the bathroom door to check he’s ok (what a monster). He’s cynical and mean in a way that leaves no room for sympathy, and which makes any ‘jokes’ completely not funny; unfortunate, given we’ve got to spend the next 85 minutes with him as a spitting, crazed wreck.
Don’t get me wrong, whilst we’ve seen the repressed trauma story a million times, I still think it’s relevant and meaty enough for us to see it some more. But 85 minutes of being glared and yelled at will not cut it.
Potter, being the only performer, is required to play multiple roles at this children’s party. He works exceedingly hard throughout, not only cranking up his already raging character from 10 to 11, but also switching in a group conversation between five or six characters. But with the combination of too many voices speaking in close proximity, and the characters being only vague, stereotyped outlines, it becomes exhausting and insipid to watch. And the big reveal of why Sasha is angry at his brother comes so late and is already so completely predictable that the relief it’s supposed to bring hardly touches the sides. If Potter hadn’t been directed to spit every word with intense hate from the very beginning, it’s possible the effect would have been different, but likely nominally so.
A set and costume consultant is listed in the programme, but there’s no staging, and Potter wears a single outfit throughout- a shiny shirt tucked into light blue jeans- which I hate. It takes until Sasha and Chet are in the car on a mobile phone for me to realise this is set in the present day, because he’s dressed like an early ‘80s George Michael.
If this were a young writer’s first foray, I would likely feel quite different. It feels like it came from a young, angsty mind who hasn’t seen or read enough yet but who has a lot of exciting potential. But it’s from a giant! Philip Ridley, for goodness’ sake! And in the context of his wildly impressive oeuvre, this is beyond disappointing.
Reviewed on 17th October 2022
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Matt Martin
Previously reviewed at this venue: