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Philip Ridley, best known for his darkly controversial The Pitchfork Disney and his more recent lockdown play The Poltergeist, returns to the digital stage with Tarantula at the Southwark Playhouse. With more ins and outs than a spider’s web, this play explores regret and consequence in a whirlwind monologue, full of suspense and intrigue from the get-go.
Toni, a teenager from East-End London, has never been kissed. While working a job with the elderly she meets Michael and is totally fixated. Later, they go on a date and share their first kiss, but what should be a beautiful experience turns into her darkest nightmare and changes things forever.
Primarily framed as a head and shoulders shot, the camera builds a hugely uncomfortable tension very quickly, fixed in on Toni as she delivers the text down the barrel of the lens. With minimal wiggle room, there is simply no place to hide, no gesture that goes unnoticed and no slip of emotion that doesn’t register. Whilst the playhouse isn’t a huge space and a similar effect may have been true of a live performance, this added intensity magnifies Ridley’s words and keeps us feeling uneasy throughout.
Regardless of the limited bounds of movement for actress Georgie Henley, director Wiebke Green manages to create a series of storytelling methods to help place the various characters within Toni’s journey, such as using sideways profiles to differentiate characters talking to one another – this really keeps the play present and the scenes feeling different and fresh. There is also a clear focus on the tempo of the scenes, challenging Henley to build pace at an exponential rate and then drop it like a tray of glasses and leave us reeling. Most interesting is the intensity of moments of physical contact, given so much attention and focus that they feel totally real even though there is only one actor present.
Henley’s performance is exceptional. Reminding me somewhat of DubbleJoint’s Stones in His Pockets as she flips through characters with tremendous skill, creating defining vocal qualities and mannerisms that allow us to implicitly follow what is happening. Occasionally, Henley’s inflections are off and her lines miss-stressed, and from time to time her physicality seems a little A-Level Drama in its simplicity. Yet, she also holds total control over the audience giving a thoroughly detailed and perfectly timed performance. Her youthful charm and deft use of impulses into Toni’s tangents bring a heightened level of emotion under very difficult circumstances.
Ridley displays his mastery of light and dark shades, creating an imperfect but captivating narrator who winds the story through unexpected turns and ultimately leaves us trapped within her world. Though presented as a monologue, there is so much depth and complexity given to these characters through Toni’s words, and after an hour and a half with them it is hard to shake the feeling that they are still there. A gripping performance of a chilling thriller.
Tarantula was livestreamed from Southwark Playhouse on Friday 30th April and Saturday 1st May for more information see Southwark Playhouse’s website.