The Poltergeist

The frantic moto perpetuo of Philip Glass’s Rubric fills the auditorium as an overture to Philip Ridley’s breathtaking work, The Poltergeist, at the Arcola Theatre. The music permeates the body and lingers in the mind throughout the play. Although switched off as soon as the performance begins, it haunts the action throughout and exists as a memory that accompanies the action. It’s no add-on, but perhaps one of the most carefully chosen pieces of music to ever introduce a drama.

Quite simply a tour de force.

The Poltergeist is one of many works that Ridley wrote during and around the period of the Pandemic. It was live-streamed internationally from Southwark Playhouse in November 2020. He, along with director Wiebke Green and actor Joseph Potter created that version and have now delivered the stage debut courtesy of Flying Colours Productions. The trio know each other well, and it shows. The level of intimate synchronicity is evident throughout this piece. Here are three enormously talented creatives working as one with a clear focus and unity of purpose that alone can create such a stunning production. The Arcola, in a description that cuts to the bones of this play, says this ‘one-man show is about art, family, memory, and being haunted by the life we never lived’. Indeed it is, but that stark description belies the rich depths of writing that allow Sasha, the lone character, to expose the tormented mind that is manifestly on the verge of a breakdown and to so vividly portray the characters that surround him.

Potter plays them all. Through physical and verbal contortions he moves rapidly from one person to the next in exchanges that begin to explain his tormented condition. He takes on the voices, the accents, the mannerisms and postures of family, friends and neighbours, each sharply defined and given a location by Green, who uses every inch of space and tightly choreographs the whole work which is unobtrusively, but supportivley lit by Chuma Emembolu.

Perhaps Sasha's life started out too well, when his artistic endeavours had him hailed as an art-world prodigy at the age of fifteen. In those days celebrities wanted to buy his paintings and he dreamed of being a superstar. Now he lives in a run-down flat, with his out-of-work boyfriend, and is an unknown. There was a turning point, an event which changed him, but it is one that others might have overcome and handle differently. His reactions to it reveal a mind that was probably already starting to go its own way. As a potentially unstable narrator of his life the accuracy of his accounts are perhaps questionable, but they are, nevertheless, real to him.

There’s an image he creates in the opening lines when he wakes up with a headache; something that is not unusual for him. He wipes the steam from the bathroom mirror and says, “I look exactly like I feel. Hunted by hyenas. A nightmare. I have them a lot”. Potter captures this in the animated, relentless movement and the impassioned speed with which he delivers much of the text. He is a man possessed. Is he running away from the hyenas, trying to escape or is he running with them as one of the pack in pursuit of something that will sustain him? Is he laughing with them or at them? Whatever is going on in Sasha’s mind he behaves as one both hunted and haunted by what is in his mind; a man engaged in frenzied inner thoughts and impassioned outward expressions, always seemingly racing from one to another.

Potter has all the skills necessary to create and sustain a one-hander and here they have been drawn out in Green’s fearless direction, enabling him to display them in abundance. Together they have given life to Ridley’s exuberant writing, lifting it from the page to the stage in a textbook collaboration that demonstrates what can be achieved when the great work together. Quite simply a tour de force.

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The Blurb

From master storyteller Philip Ridley, the award-winning The Poltergeist makes its stage debut at Arcola Theatre, featuring Joseph Potter .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?

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