The last time Joseph Potter performed Philip Ridley’s The Poltergeist, it was met with the silence of an empty theatre; as the production was forced to switch to a live streamed format during the Coronavirus lockdown. Tonight, as the world premiere production returns for a more traditional run, Potter was met with the rapturous applause and standing ovation a performance of this calibre deserves.
Potter portrays Sasha who, at just fifteen years old, showed promise as a talented artist, earning a coveted exhibition all of his own. Like many young prodigies, Sasha’s life and career didn’t continue on the upward trajectory, and now we find him hooked on painkillers and relying on partner Chet to get him through his niece’s birthday party.
The group of characters that occupy this play, and his brother’s home, on this one day snapshot of a tumultuous life, expose the deep-rooted problems of the family, and the pain that has brought them to this point in their lives.
As a solo play it falls to Potter to portray all of the characters (and there are many), while at the same time sharing Sasha’s internal monologue. It’s frenetic and, for the audience, truly exhilarating, as this talented actor flawlessly presents complex conversations, and develops characters with barely a breath between each line.
This darkly comic piece of writing from Philip Ridley is at it’s most thrilling when we see Sasha maintain convivial conversations with his family, while allowing the audience to listen to the secrets of his own thoughts. Of course, the pretence can only be kept so long before exploding in a savage and devastating outburst; the only part of the play where the other voices are drowned out, leaving Sasha to unload years of pent-up anger.
With the entire stage to play with, director Wiebke Green keeps it all beautifully simple, allowing the audience to focus entirely on Sasha and the story he’s telling us. The Poltergeist is a tricky play to get right, but Green’s direction is pointed and nuanced, opening up the workings of Sasha’s psyche for all to see.
As Sasha, Joseph Potter gives the stand-out performance of this year; the audience sit open-mouthed in awe as Potter delivers an unbelievably visceral portrayal of a character in so much torment, that it feels like it will forever be etched in the memories of those of us who witnessed it.
Ridley’s lyrical prose is complemented with physical theatre that sees Potter use body movement and facial expressions as another weapon in his finely tuned arsenal, the actor is very rarely still; the physical movements almost a metaphor for the internal turmoil Sasha is experiencing.
The Poltergeist explores the ghosts of a family’s past, but it also asks us to question how reliable memories can be, and suddenly through the anger and rage, Sasha’s disappointment in life feels relatable, as a tragic but loveable character emerges.
The transition of The Poltergeist from an online piece of theatre to an in-person run needs to be celebrated; partly because of the tenacity of the creative team to finally bring Ridley’s haunting story to audiences as intended, and partly because it gives London a chance to see up close one of the finest actors of this generation.
The Poltergeist is at The Arcola Theatre.