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The Poltergeist by Philip Ridley at Arcola Theatre

I was reminded, looking out at the Arcola Theatre’s largest stage before the show (the venue has several ‘studios’), reading about a reviewer who wrote ‘chair’ in their notebook, because that was all there was on stage for the production they were about to see a few years ago. The Poltergeist doesn’t even have a chair. With neither set nor costume changes, Joseph Potter plays not only Sasha, an artist who seems to have developed the drawing and painting equivalent of writer’s block, but his partner, Chet, and miscellaneous family members, of various generations, and other guests at a party being thrown, if I recall correctly, by his brother and his (that is, the brother’s) wife. It’s vocal gymnastics throughout, and it’s a delight to witness.

The Poltergeist - Credit Matt Martin
The Poltergeist – Credit Matt Martin.

All the characters are portrayed sufficiently distinctly in what seems like a boundless amount of energy – when Potter stops, very occasionally and very briefly, to catch his breath, it feels as though most people in the audience are also catching theirs. Social distancing regulations have long been excised (the play was first performed as a streaming production in lockdown), though Sasha’s own inner thoughts, voiced quite ferociously, indicate that he would rather be able to rely on the ‘rule of six’ or ‘tier three’ or even taking a red pencil and drawing a second line on a lateral flow test in order to get out of being at a family function he does not want to attend. When he gets there, he muses that he could do with one of those maniacs with a machine gun to do their thing at that moment. Oof.

Mind you, there are justifiable reasons for Sasha to dislike almost everybody: X has told outright lies, Y is just dripping with the sort of overly smiley kindness that is counterproductively irritating, and then there are the older relatives who insist on regaling everyone else with stories about Sasha’s childhood that are both embarrassing and, objectively, not nearly as funny (if at all) as the storytellers think they are. An acerbic running commentary gives the production a dark sense of humour, with Sasha telling the audience what he is ‘really’ thinking, although there is often a significant disparity between such thoughts and what is spoken out loud. He’s angry and bitter, but he’s not socially dysfunctional.

The problem, for want of a better word, with no set at all, is that the script must describe some mundane details, for instance: parking, getting out of the car, walking to a pharmacy, buying medication, and walking back to the car. But Potter makes even that chain of events somehow intriguing, with the audience hanging on every sentence. The inner thoughts, meanwhile, can be crude and vulgar, but are also highly credible and, combined with physical theatre, make for a riveting and strangely satisfying experience – it’s as if there’s a cathartic release through those thoughts that would be quite impossible through polite and civilised conversation.

In essence, the show puts paid to the idea that an artist’s torment fosters creativity. A standing ovation well deserved for an utter tour de force performance.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

This one-man show is about art, family, memory, and being haunted by the life we never lived.

At fifteen Sasha was called an art world prodigy. Celebrities wanted to buy his paintings. His first exhibition was going to make him a superstar.

But now he lives in a run-down flat, with his out-of-work boyfriend, and no one’s even heard of him…What went wrong?

Arcola Theatre presents a Flying Colours Production
The Poltergeist
by Philip Ridley
Directed by Wiebke Green

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