Theatre Review: Ghost From A Perfect Place (Arcola Theatre, London)

Florence Hall (centre) as Rio Sparks. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Florence Hall (centre) as Rio Sparks. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Rating: ****

In a Nutshell

Solid and enchanting writing skilfully produced, but just not as daring and dangerous as other Philip Ridley plays.

Overview

Grandma Sparks receives a visitor one evening, none other than East End mob boss Travis Flood, who has come out of hiding after many years. He’s here to see her granddaughter, Rio, leader of the violent local girl gang, The Disciples of St. Donna. But during his visit, Travis gets more than he bargained for, as this old school gangster clashes with new blood, and past wrongs come home to roost.

Writing

It’s hard to believe that this play is 20 years old, first getting its performance to great acclaim back in 1994. What’s astonishing is that it has lost very little of its sheen, even with the moral panic of violent girl gangs,  a very integral part of the plot, being somewhat dated. Yet two decades on, and with a new edition of the text, it’s still a vivid and rich play.

Ridley has come up with a watertight narrative, full of complex themes and abstracts, and with several quiet twists and turns that surprise or prompt little “aaah!” moments. Memories and the re-telling of them are often a key theme in a lot of Ridley’s works, and here is no different. It’s these scenes that are the most beguiling and entrancing, and really elevate the play from being something ordinary. The way these are written, and the deft handle of language, result in an ethereal and transient netherworld that flits in and out of ours and the characters’ reality; it’s transfixing, even if some of the points put across through them are more than unsavoury.

This a phenomenal sense of high poetry – tripping dexterously through metre, rhythm, and language – creates a dazzling aural kaleidoscope that is exhilarating: you hang on every word, especially when delivered with zeal and energy of the cast in this play. One particular moment, “The Sermon of St. Donna,” is nothing short of intoxicating, and really marks Ridley out as a genius playwright. What’s more, Ridley effortlessly puts wry humour, tension, and disturbing undercurrents in a headlock against each other, making this a fractured and unsettling piece. You never feel quite at ease even in the most lighter moments because of this constant juxtaposition of reality and dreams and truth and secrets shrouding foetid goings on.

However, there are a few criticisms to be had. For starters, the storyline is a little predictable and it doesn’t take much to figure out where the play is heading. Because of this, it doesn’t keep sense of unknowing mystery that would better drive the show as the comic-thriller it is. Furthermore, it’s just simply not as bold or as dangerous as his other plays. His first play, The Pitchfork Disney, had its first audience reportedly running from the Bush Theatre screaming in terror; I still get shivers thinking of Cosmo Disney’s “party trick” or Pitchfork’s “solo”. Then, there’s Mercury Fur: a sickening but perfect horror that took five years to convince the critics of it’s brilliance behind some of the most gruesome and perverse scenes to have graced the stage.

But that’s not to say that Ghost From A Perfect Place isn’t at all capricious and impacting. Gang culture is still a very real and spiky issue that hasn’t at all left us, and within the play are moments that are very violent and visceral, almost spitting at you and your comfort zones at point blank range. It still really challenges perceptions of gang culture and crime by exploring the tragic reasons youngsters turn to this sub-culture, savagely satirising the fanaticism of gang members that verges on the religious, and contrasting the misplaced romance of old mob-days with the gritty reality of the modern.

It might not be the best Ridley play, and those who have been thrilled by some of the many other new works and/or revivals of old ones might have their expectations of Ghost From a Perfect Place fall short. But that’s not to say it’s badly written: far from it. It just there’s just better Ridley out there.

Shelia Reid (left) and Michael Feast (right). Photograph: Courtesy of  Ben Broomfield.

Shelia Reid (left) and Michael Feast (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Production & Direction

This is a very slick production, giving Ghost From A Perfect Place the attention and quality it deserves. Russell Bolam has previously directed the award-winning Shivered, so already has experience of how to treat Ridley’s luscious text. He toys with pace and tempo excellently, really stringing the audience along with sudden builds of crescendo, and elsewhere swaggering among the at-odds humour of the piece. It’s great to see a director who understands not just the story, but the beat of the text itself.

He is also supported well by Anthony Lamble’s set, brimming with detail, helping us become absorbed in the squalid world and twisted turn of events. However, it’s Richard Hammarton’s sound design that is most striking. There are wonderfully subtle touches of slow-building music to support the growing intensity of some of the scenes, as well as some clever use of adding in reverberation to live sound to also achieve a sense of high drama, really bringing the piece to vibrant life.

Florence Hall as Rio. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Florence Hall as Rio. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Cast

Stealing the show are the three gang ladies: Florence Hall as Rio, Scarlett Brookes as Miss Sulphur, and Rachel Redford as Miss Kerosene. Even though they don’t appear until the second act, they drive the show with a vicious energy and a palpable animalistic cravenness. They work excellently well with each other to create an unpredictable tempest of fraying relationships and fuck-ups on the edge of reason, bouncing mercilessly off the differences of their personas. Hall is especially haunting, striding about inert and icy, curiously trying to comprehend the situation she’s been placed in, whilst desperately trying to keep control of herself, her status, and her ‘disciples’. It’s a wonderfully slow cracking of character that’s controlled and spine-tingling.

However, Michael Feast, as Travis Flood, sometimes breaks the suspension of disbelief in being a bit too much like a Victorian melodrama villain plopped in the middle of Eastenders. However, this might be more of a directional misstep that of Feast’s characterisations. It’s difficult to feel intimidated by someone who feels like a panto Ronnie Biggs, but when the show is all about the power shift from ageing gangster to unhinged “bimbos dressed in kitchen foil”, this might well be what Bolam is trying to get across. But at other times, Feast excels in smaller ticks and quirks in his performance that makes him a real treat to watch, especially what he does with his tongue! And even though you’re mostly not scared of him, because of these little garnishes, it’s when he his most vulnerable that he feels the most fiendish.

Verdict

This is not the most astonishing or outstanding of Ridley’s play’s, but it’s far from bad: in fact, it’s incredibly good. It’s still challenging and daring, just not as much as some of his more renowned works. But with this good cast and slick production, it’s your personal expectation that’s the let down, not this otherwise thrilling and suitably twisted revival.

[youtube http://youtu.be/bnH2s98QUak]

Ghost From A Perfect Place plays at the Arcola Theatre, London, E8 3DL, until 11 October 2014.. Tickets are £19 (concessions available). To book, visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

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