Arcola Theatre, London – until 29 October 2022
Philip Ridley’s The Poltergeist is an irresistibly restless creation which emulates the troublesome violent spirit conjured up by the title. The firework cracking solo piece has had a checkered history. It was first produced at Southwark Playhouse where its run was stymied by Covid lockdown but played out in a deserted auditorium to broadcasting cameras for a criminally brief three performances; it blew away the competition to scoop the Off West End OnComm award for a live streamed piece. It then became an on demand video which has haunted the recesses of the internet ever since and been spoken of with increasing admiration for those of us who saw its glorious beginnings.
Ghostly demons are now being exorcised once again as it finally reaches a live stage (with a real audience) at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre. It is still an absolute sensation, perhaps even more so, as performer Joseph Potter and director Wiebke Green pull out all the stops to dazzle, delight and dumbfound across 80 minutes of intense storytelling.
Former artistic child prodigy Sasha attends a family gathering for his young niece’s birthday. He only goes because his ever patient partner Chet insists. Fuelled by liberal quantities of co-codamol and a massive sense of resentment against figures from his past, Sasha more or less creates his own seventh circle of hell. Outwardly smiling and just about compliant he is in fact a seething ball of fury which bursts out in infantile, random and pointless acts of destruction when he is alone. It’s screamingly funny but infinitely sad especially in a short coda which forcibly reminds us that Sasha is a double plus unreliable narrator and that perhaps the jaundiced view he has of the other party guests is unfair.
Potter plays Sasha and indeed everyone else in this scintillating monodrama via a mercurial performance which absolutely astonishes. The voices, the verbal inflexions, the body language, the almost balletic movement: Potter has it all and then some. He flits about the bare and starkly lit stage, words tumbling over each other, interrupting himself as he switches characters back and forth with a daring precision that leaves you breathless. Playing one sharply defined character can be a challenge – here there are at least ten of them.
On top of this Ridley adds another layer as we are made privy to Sasha’s vitriolic inner monologue. Venomously spiteful but hilarious it’s another element which Potter handles with apparent ease but which demonstrates his complete mastery of the material. And, magically, he manages to engender sympathy for a young man who is actually thoroughly selfish, unlikeable and possibly psychotic. Potter has already been nominated for an Offie this year for his performance in The Dwarfs; it would be criminal if he were not to be so again. I’m going to stick my head above the parapet here and state that I’m prepared to stake my reputation, meagre though that may be, on Joseph Potter heading for stardom in the acting profession.
He is excellently served by Green’s direction which also pulls no punches and ensures that even in the quieter passages there is still an intensity which keeps things burning. Sasha’s late encounter with the older of his two nieces, who seems to have some of the artistic abilities of her disaffected uncle, is particularly poignantly done. And Ridley himself has never been better at crafting the words which are spoken. He uses mini atom bombs of dialogue to challenge complacency and bring the imagined surroundings into vivid life- Sasha describes things in exact artistic colour terminology (e.g., not blue but cobalt blue). The writer/director/performer alliance here has created something really special.
I can’t say how thrilled I was to catch up with this live iteration of The Poltergeist last night. It is a sensational and essential piece of theatregoing which should not be missed under any circumstances. Above all it has a central performance which, quoting my own original review, I can only redescribe as “phenomenal”. Last time round, I semi jokingly awarded the piece 6 stars out of 5, even though I generally deplore such a ratings system. Actually, let’s make that 7!