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‘Joseph Potter is more than a match for this quick-fire writing’: THE POLTERGEIST – Southwark Playhouse (Online review)

We may be in the middle of a second period of theatre closure but it hasn’t stopped the new work from flowing freely as venues re-orientate their programmes online. One of the biggest concerns during the summer was that venues desperate for revenue would resort to tried and tested productions to guarantee their return to profitability. Yet, the venues that have reopened or continued to produce streamed content have grasped the opportunity to say something different, offering new voices, new perspectives and performers that may well set the industry on course for a more experimental and inclusive future.

And this new work has been extremely encouraging; last week, Jermyn Street Theatre premiered its impressive anthology collection 15 Heroines a reconceived imagining of the experience of the women of Greek myth that brought together 15 female playwrights and 15 female performers in what feels like an important statement both on the role digital streaming will play in the industry’s future and (with extra dates added to meet demand) the different kinds of stories we all want to hear. The same applies to the National Theatre’s free stream of Death of England: Delroy; available on Friday, it is a work that ran for only two weeks and will now be offered for 24-hours in an extraordinary gesture of community with themes of black identity, nationality and friendship that resonate with the here and now so powerfully.

Southwark Playhouse has been at the forefront of responsiveness to pandemic restrictions, reimagining their main house with plastic protections screens to separate seats allowing a fuller capacity while simultaneously streaming productions at home. This preparedness has allowed them to quickly pivot to offering online content during this second lockdown with the returning The Last Five Years captured live and available to stream later this week, while Philip Ridley’s intimate and scorching new monologue The Poltergeist was given just three streamed performances over the weekend.

Like Steve McQueen, Ridley is a multimedia creator finding success as a playwright, film-maker, artist, lyricist and poet while his subject matter has covered everything from the Kray twins to children’s stories, opera and family dramas, and it is the latter that The Poltergeist is concerned with, introducing a complex protagonist who is a savage observer of the foibles and failings of those around him while struggling to contain his own experience of loss and disappointment. The acidity of Sasha’s internal reflections are subtly tempered by the enthusiasm and care of his family as well as Sasha’s underlying sensitivity that make The Poltergeist an absorbing 70-minutes.

Ridley’s set-up is a simple one, a gay couple forced to attend a child’s birthday party where long-held family tensions, personal struggles and the required social niceties form a toxic mix that lead to a reckoning of sorts. Told entirely from Sasha’s perspective, he presents each of the other characters – an increasingly amusing cast of well-meaning relatives, fellow parents and childhood acquaintances – as well as his more easy-going partner. Ridley also balances the words Sasha speaks publicly with his, often hilariously contradictory and vicious internal thoughts that give an absorbing depth to Ridley’s character and the scenario he creates.

There is something incredibly vivid and familiar in the way Ridley lays-out his central scene at the home of Flynn and Neve, Sasha’s brother and sister-in-law where their daughter Jamila is celebrating her fifth birthday. It exactly captures the overwhelming quality of children’s parties filled with noise and excitement as people charge around with cakes, karaoke and games while the awkward parents make small-talk in the kitchen. Ridley’s language is very precise, creating a comfortable middle-class existence where the presence of family photographs on every surface, the hired trampoline and the proliferation of lemon cupcakes evokes a welcoming and happy atmosphere, but one with a sour tinge that keeps Sasha slightly outside the protective bubble of what seems to him an almost generically offensive idea of home.

With no set or backdrop of any kind, just an actor with a microphone, Ridley’s choice of words and particular phraseology is essential to Southwark Playhouse’s production, and with its rich but pointed vocabulary, the intimacy of home streaming is perfectly suited to the claustrophobic feeling Ridley creates. At the start, the audience is largely amused by Sasha’s sharp asides, a creation whose inner monologue reflects our own as we all pass pleasantries with strangers and loved ones when our thoughts are of an opposite bent, and Ridley finds much comedy in the whiplash-like delivery of these contrasting views as Sasha smiles and nods through conversations with his supportive partner Chet and even a local pharmacist on the way to the fateful party.

There is something of Alan Ayckborn in the scenario, a portentousness about the family gathering that we hope will pass without incident, although we know that it cannot. The way this builds through the unfolding story is rather brilliantly achieved with waves of intense conversation that build to a crescendo, leaving behind a pregnant silence and shock. Within these moments, Sasha recounts the contributions of every person present in a rhythm that gets faster and faster, a bullet-like delivery as the tension builds to its mini-breaking point. Partly this reflects the idea of Sasha’s mind feeling increasing submerged or even besieged by the opinions and banalities of others, accosted by people wanting to show him photos of their children, recount stories of their mutual past or pester him to eat, see his niece or provide the kinds of social endorsement that glues a party together.

These rhythms are essential to the production’s success, each encounter creating small pressures that escalate as the celebration wears on, and across the full 70-minutes of The Poltergeist build to a much more significant confrontation that pushes harder and harder against Sasha’s resolve, forcing him to revisit painful events. Ridley uses the interpolation of multiple voices to quicken the pace, so the blistering speed of delivery almost sets itself, the actor forced by the construction and cadence to speed up as characters start to (quite naturally) cut into each other’s sentences so their many voices throb in Sasha’s head along with his own responses and internal monologue – it is muscular and powerful writing that instantly stands off the page.

Thematically, The Poltergeist is filled with the kind of personal baggage that lends such credibility and, at times, even deep empathy for Sasha’s perspective. There is a strong mother and sons angle that is introduced later in the story but makes sense of many of the behaviours we experience and the absence of Sasha and Flynn’s mother is both subtle but also cavernous. Sasha, we learn, inherits his artistic skill from his mother and this has shaped his career and his interaction with his slightly older brother. A character deliberately vague in description and influence, nonetheless her presence is tangible particularly as Sasha is forced to endure the memories and contributions of people he considers sideshows to his life such as a former neighbour whose spectral appearance at this feast presages a furious explosion as people try to recast his precious remembrances of a happier past.

The nature of Sasha’s relationship with her is equally the cause of an apparently one-sided distance with his brother Flynn who Sasha presents as an empty try-hard with little conception of life beyond his perfect bubble. Sasha clings to small victories, believing even that his mother chose his father better than the much older Flynn’s, although both disappear from the story almost as soon as they are mentioned. The protectiveness that Sasha exerts over his mother’s memory and the belief that he was special to her speaks to an important underlying trauma that fuels much of Sasha’s hatred and is almost entirely turned-around by the conclusion.

As one of Ridley’s many careers, art too is an essential theme in The Poltergeist shaping Sasha’s sense of self but also unleashing an entirely different side to the character. Discovering an early taste of fame – bolstered by Flynn’s enthusiasm for his brother’s talent – several people at the party push Sasha to discuss his discovery an as artist. Nowhere else in the drama do we see Sasha alight with enthusiasm, pride and inspiration as he recounts his earlier work and the reception, basking once again in the shadow of that memory. Ridley halts his internal monologue for the only time, no viscous comments or backbiting, so Sasha is truly present in the world and not living in his head.

But art features in other ways, in the need and value of public art such as murals and graffiti that feature in some of the discussions, another parent’s amateur sketches that give him an escape from his own routine, and through the posed photographs and ornaments that adorn Flynn and Neve’s home. Sasha, spitefully, tries to draw a distinction between the quality of his own knowledge and the amateur attempts of others, but there is something in Ridley’s play about the transcendental space and calm it carves out for anyone needing peace from whatever their lives may be.

While the playwright has laid much of the groundwork, it is the exceptional performance of Joseph Potter that gives such incredible substance to this production, skillfully balancing the multiple voices and characteristion while charting Sasha’s changing path through this story. Potter is more than a match for Ridley’s quick-fire writing, delivering those sharp ripostes from Sasha’s thoughts with an easy venom in the early part of the play, the amusing ferocity and slick timing of which can sometimes catch you off guard. But as the party unfolds, Potter is astounding in the free-flowing periods of conversation where he cuts from character to character in seconds to create the impression of one continuous discussion unfolding with all its changing speeds, overlapping contributions and escalating feeling of apprehension.

The creation of this surrounding cast is somewhat two-dimensional but reflective of how Sasha sees those around him. Potter makes Flynn a slightly better spoken people-pleaser but with hints of care and pride in his brother’s talent that Sasha refuses to acknowledge, while sister-in-law Neve is a fine comic mummy cliche that Potter manifests with a therapist’s patronising tone and clutched hands as she buzzes around Sascha offering kindly looks and supportive noises, but Potter grasps a very tiny opportunity in one of Ridley’s speeches to also suggest Neve is an attention-seeker who secretly resents the space and energy her brother-in-law consumes.

And while it would be easy to make Sasha melodramatic and a little hateful, Potter introduces important notes of vulnerability that are there early in the performance but become more visible as the audience learns more about his background. The long looks off-screen in the pauses suggest a young man damaged by events and struggling to stay afloat in a world dominated by everyone else’s perfection. While Sasha lashes out at those around him, there is genuinely love and appreciation for Chet while Potter ensures that even at his most outrageously rude, we empathise with a character in pain unable to overcome the moods that afflict him.

The prevalence of new work in recent months has been hugely edifying and The Poltergeist is one of the most exciting. Playing to several cameras in Southwark Playhouse’s sadly empty space, these vary the simplicity of the monologue while reflecting its changing tones. Ridley’s play made an intimate transition to the screen and will be unmissable as soon as live performances can be scheduled.

The Poltergeist was streamed from Southwark Playhouse on 20 and 21 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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