Review: The Poltergeist, The Southwark Playhouse
4.0Overall Score

While his writing of The Poltergeist is nowhere near as unhinged as Tender Napalm, Philip Ridley brings us an enthralling new play following our loose-cannon protagonist, Sasha, as he drowns in his deteriorating sanity over the course of a single day.

Played by Joseph Potter, Sasha is a loveable menace and each of his disturbed thoughts pounds through you, like a migraine. Ridley spills darkness into every corner of the work with images of a tormented artist. It may not feel like the conventional poetic swarm of Ridley’s work, but in the throws of a nauseating family reunion, Potter’s voice batters you.

Sasha is a charming nightmare, the sort of anti-hero you root for but would never want to meet. Staring at a delightful little girl’s birthday display, he says, “There’s never a maniac with a machine gun when you need one.” True to Ridley, we’re dragged through East London. We sneak around as he sabotages a child’s birthday party, ransacks his brother’s bedroom and conceals his deepening addiction — it’s thrilling when he succeeds in something dastardly. He’s a disgusting young man, yet every time he falls silent and asks, “Am I gonna cry?”, you feel for him. 

It is Potter’s one-man performance which brings Ridley’s words to life. There’s not an inch of set, yet Potter’s hands spin gold in the space as he conjures an intricate universe before our very eyes. He turns his head back and forth, switching from thought to dialogue. He holds group conversation, jumping from voice to voice, accent to accent. Potter’s skill is what makes this show so captivating and he is absolutely exquisite in his portrayal of a failed child prodigy battling addiction. It is an exercise in endurance and Potter delivers a sustained and opulent show.

The Poltergeist is a play of self-destruction — whether in the sphere of art or of addiction. You are forced to spectate as a young man crumbles into a wilderness of wasted potential. No one really speaks of the damage done in pressuring young talent — which leaves Sasha screaming. I commend Ridley’s focus on the epidemic of prescription abuse as we’re forced to watch Sasha casually overdose in the first five minutes of the play. Nothing is glamorised — it’s dirty and uncomfortable and frightening in a most stylish, engulfing soliloquy, but Potter’s eyes sparkle at the camera.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this work is its soft queer relationship. Sasha’s concerned boyfriend Chet (also performed by Potter) exudes a warm, tangible energy which enriches the gay representation. They’re both torn apart by Sasha’s afflictions, but their connection is a healing entity in itself. You’re spat out at the end of this play; the crisp narrative settling in a tear-jerking, satisfying close.

The Poltergeist played online until 21st November. For more
information, see the Southwark Playhouse website.