The Poltergeist at the Arcola – review

Philip Ridley’s monologue has a live run in east London

Joseph Potter
Joseph Potter
© Matt Martin

Many of us are probably familiar with the "next circle of hell" that can be family gatherings, particularly one involving members you dislike for past grievances. This is where Philip Ridley sets the majority of his monologue play The Poltergeist, being staged live for the first time at the Arcola following a streaming run at Southwark Playhouse last year.

Sasha (Joseph Potter) is a shell of his former self. A once proclaimed child prodigy who painted large-scale murals and on the precipice of great artistic success is now bitter. He is negative about most things, has an inferred addiction to cocodamol and finds it difficult to create art like he used to. But this isn't an overtly sad story. Ridley infuses the show with dark comedy in the form of Sasha's unspoken thoughts, thrown out at the audience with vitriol, making us laugh with shock (even if some of the punchlines are somewhat predictable).

Potter pulls out an energetic, tour-de-force performance as Sasha, while also portraying all the other characters he encounters at the hellish family party – from loving partner Chet and smug brother and sister-in-law Flynn and Niamh to a grating party guest who constantly says "wow" at…absolutely everything. For an extended period Potter is voicing a conversation between six distinct characters and it is a marvel to watch: even seeing how much work it is for Potter to remember and maintain the dialogue somehow makes it all the more impressive and adds to Sasha's character spiralling out of control.

Wiebke Green's direction induces whiplash: one moment Potter moves slowly, speaking at a constant pace, then suddenly is shouting, spinning so fast one wonders if he will crash into the Arcola's exposed brick wall. It's a fitting choice of direction to present an unstable artistic mind.

The Poltergeist explores ideas of art, innate talent and memory, and Ridley ensures that though Sasha may be somewhat burned out, he still has that sparkle of love when it comes to creativity. He names colours around him as if from a paint set, while likening various locations in east London to a filming location, seeing himself as an extra rather than protagonist or star.

There's no outright conclusion and the ending doesn't quite pack the punch it could following such a whirlwind performance, but The Poltergeist is a real achievement in solo storytelling and world-building – highly recommended for Potter's outstanding performance.