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Review: The Poltergeist (Southwark Playhouse)

Saturday afternoon, I am sitting on the sofa in the pyjamas I slept in (fuck off, it’s lockdown). The Poltergeist, a new monologue by the venerable Phillip Ridley, is going to start in about fifteen minutes. Their stream is ready to go on my laptop, I can hear canned audience chatter emanating from my tinny speakers, it’s been so long since I sat in a theatre that it feels quite reassuring.

The Poltergeist is a seventy minute monologue, performed by Joseph Potter. He takes to the stage as Sasha, waking up with a headache, he slams back some co-codamol; it’s not the last time he’ll do it. What follows is classic Ridley, an hour long, darkly funny, nail-bite inducing, resentment-fuelled, poetic trip through the bruised psyche of a young man, as he struggles to get through the most nightmarish of situations: his niece’s party.

Sasha, initially, comes across as a bit of a knob. A pretentious artist, a child prodigy who, judging by the size of his apartment, didn’t reach the heights expected of him. A young man to whom everything is a cliche, unable even to receive a well-meaning compliment without his inner monologue slagging off the appraiser, with a typically eloquent Ridley tirade. Yet there is something compelling about him, supported in both the writing, and Potter’s irresistible portrayal. In a particularly prescient moment, as Sasha is driven to his niece’s party by his partner, he remembers the Museum of Childhood; a building near his childhood home. In this museum he vividly recollects an animation of a bear, who wakes up, see’s some honey bees, reaches up to get them, gets stung, returns to his slumber and then repeats the circuit ad infinitum. A sisyphean task to match the original. What follows for Sasha at the birthday party, proves to be sisyphean too.

Potter is excellent. He embodies with precision all manner of well-mannered middle class party guests, who clamour around the young artist, regaling each other with the stories of Sasha’s famed teenage years. The claustrophobic conversations are performed solely by Potter, but it’s easy to forget that he is alone on a stage that seems so full of individual voices, the rhythm of their well-intentioned but inane chatter undulating as if under a conductor's guide, inevitably crescendoing into loud outburst. The direction, from Wiebke Green, is inspired; to create a performance by one actor, with no props, no sound, no lighting, no audience, that feels full to burst, is a remarkable achievement.

The eerie silence that greets the final bow is a solemn reminder of our current times. Potter is a revelation and deserved a live audience for this, he really did, and it’s a pity he couldn’t be greeted in rapturous applause after what must be an intensely draining performance. That’s the way of the world at the moment, and I’m grateful to see anything live or streamed; besides I’m sure Potter will be packing out audiences for many, many years to come, hopefully with us all there in the flesh.

The Poltergeist is available to stream until the 21st of November, more information available here.

Martin Photography

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