The Poltergeist proves a forlorn truth – online, monologues just aren’t as dramatic

Joseph Potter in The Poltergeist by Philip Ridley - Matt Martin
Joseph Potter in The Poltergeist by Philip Ridley - Matt Martin

It’s 30 years since, hot on the heels of his screenplay for The Krays (1990), the author and multi-disciplinary artist Philip Ridley helped to usher in a decade of “nasty” plays with The Pitchfork Disney at the Bush. It starred Rupert Graves as one of a pair of traumatised twins living in reclusion in the East End.

Surveying its nightmarish verbal imagery and manifold acts of unpleasantness, including a sexual assault and the eating of cockroaches, Aleks Sierz – the critic who coined the phrase “in-yer-face theatre”, heralded it as a “foundation text”, the start of an era of visceral, “experiential” theatre.

Ridley has been prolific ever since, always adventurous but also a rather marginalised figure, as if stalking British theatre from the wings. Everything he writes is of interest, but not all of it comes off; in 2016, his sprawling three-hour fantasy epic, Karagula, had me deep in bamboozled ennui in a converted London ambulance-depot.

The Poltergeist, briefly seen live at the Southwark Playhouse in November, captured and streamed as a useful addition to theatre’s paltry digital offerings, has a back-to-basics simplicity. It’s just one young man narrating a series of events – almost humdrum ones: a reluctant drop-in visit to his young niece’s birthday party in Bethnal Green in tandem with his personal trainer/actor boyfriend. But there’s a perturbation dogging his pill-addled thoughts that comes – just about – to explain the title.

Monologues, as we know, can be a turn-off. The BBC found itself on the receiving end of complaints when the form was used with abandon during the lockdown to roam the headspace of characters in The Archers. The key weapon against tedium that director Wiebke Green draws on is her young star, Joseph Potter, not long out of Guildhall School. A propulsive figure in gold shirt and blue jeans, Potter, 23, has the muscular physicality and acting chops to fill a stage. But he also possesses the kind of brooding intensity and expressive fleetness that make the camera love him too.

There are sections here where his needling, toxic character, Sasha, cuts between voices with split-second finesse, stitching together a jabbering conversation from its constituent bits, deploying slight manoeuvres (and contrasting accents) to delineate the speakers. Potter makes it look easy, but it’s a real feat of corporal and mental concentration, particularly since the language itself isn’t massively memorable – in contrast to much of Ridley’s work.

Whether our own concentration is repaid is another matter. I shall keep mum about the longstanding grudge shadowing our anti-hero, a former child artist prodigy, meaning that he can only do pleasantries through gritted teeth with his family while palpably seething with rage. Even when finally revealed, the skeletons in the cupboard don’t wholly fulfil the title’s spooky promise. And at 70 minutes, it’s quite a long haul to arrive at a pat (if pertinent) resolution about the need to exorcise inner demons in order to get creative juices flowing.

Still, if our patience is at times tested, Potter’s efforts cast their own bewitching spell of promise.

Until January 31, then on demand in February. Info: