The mind of a neurotic artist is a terrible place. Trust me, I know: I’ve been in one for 30 years and it’s not a picnic.
Yet at the center of The Poltergeist, a new solo game by Philip Ridley presented by Tramp and streamed with permission from London’s Southwark Playhouse, the artist works on a whole different level. As a teenager, Sasha (Joseph Potter) was known as a child prodigy thanks to his large-format murals. He would be a star, but now, years later, he’s a nobody who confidently makes smeared watercolors and sketches that he immediately declares worthless.
It’s hard to focus on your next masterpiece with something stuck in your crawl permanently. Sasha babbles through an internal monologue of such relentless vitriol about himself, his art and the world around him that it appears hollowed out, a black hole disguised as a person.
When he and his supportive friend, an actor named Chet, go to a niece’s birthday party, Sasha barely manages to smile and chats and bakes. He pops too many pain killers and barely disguises his grudges against his brother and sister-in-law. He ravages the house when nobody is looking. He gets angrier and angrier as the casual conversation gets closer to the subject of his art and the reason he never kept his promise. (No spoilers here, but this is family betrayal.)
Ridley, screenwriter and playwright (“The Pitchfork Disney”, “Mercury Fur”) regularly acts in a kind of tragic comedy that looks like a power failure on a winter night: acutely dark.
“The Poltergeist” is airtight, if not claustrophobic. It almost exclusively happens at this one birthday party, where Sasha reenacts every conversation with other guests and quickly brings in his own thoughts. The playwright unpacks his psychology meticulously and interrupts the sullen commentary with lush and delicate color descriptions such as “magenta, lake of purple, viridian, burnt sienna, vermilion”, which he uses in a painting.
All of this makes Potter’s job of standing alone on a bare stage for 75 minutes difficult. He’s excited, full of breakneck energy and Olympic level verbal agility, especially when ping pinging from one character to another.
This perfectly captures the manic mechanics of Sasha’s brain, but “The Poltergeist” sometimes moves so fast that things get a mess. Part of the problem is the direction of Wiebke Green, who runs the show like an emotional roller coaster ride that rises and falls at predictable intervals without surprise.
It goes like this: A flood of holds and observations from Sasha, followed by long pauses in which he finally lets deeper feelings overtake him. Some comedy gems in the script fall by the wayside, though the emotional conclusion is rich and gratifying.
Despite its occasional confusion, “The Poltergeist” attacks from start to finish, one of the most visceral delusions into the spirit of a deranged character I’ve ever seen. I will love to play Airbnb there, especially if Ridley is my host. But I’ll give the keys back when it’s over.
Until February 28; southwarkplayhouse.co.uk