Theatre review - Ghost from a Perfect Place

You can see why Philip Ridley’s Ghost from a Perfect Place would have shocked audiences at Hampstead Theatre when it premiered there twenty years ago. The play encompasses the sexual abuse of children, torture and murder among other examples of human cruelty. At the time, the Guardian's Michael Billington called it "degrading and quasi-pornographic in its use of violence". This is its first major revival to date and Ridley’s searing drama has lost none of its power.

Mobster Travis Flood (Michael Feast) has returned to his East End stomping ground some twenty-five years after his hasty departure. He visits Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) in her dingy, fire-scorched flat with a view to meeting her grand-daughter Rio (Florence Hall). Back in the 1960s, Travis ruled the roost, extorting protection money. He was known for his sharp suits and the white lily he always wore in his lapel. His careful grooming was in sharp contrast to the casual violence meted out by himself and his gang. Travis clearly wreaked people’s lives but glorifies his past, proudly handing Torchie a book about his reign of terror.

Travis can’t recall having met Torchie before so she attempts to jog his memory with a series of anecdotes. Gradually her recollections become darker. The “heydays” of the past were not such a “perfect place”, after all, and Torchie is keen to tell Travis about her own share of heartache. Finally, she reveals how their lives were connected and remain irretrievably intertwined.

In the play’s second half, Rio, head of a girl gang, and two of her followers, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), proceed to taunt Travis, who is now gagged and tied to a chair. As Travis is forced to receive a taste of his own medicine, Ridley drives home the point that violence begets violence.

Russell Bolam rises to the challenge of directing two very different halves. In the first, he uses the characters’ dialogue and their sly humour to create an atmosphere of Pinteresque menace. The tension is only unleashed in the second half with the girls’ high octane performances.

Ghost from a Perfect Place is about the fetishisation of violence. Ridley combines stark prose with allegorical flourishes: In a clever twist, he turns the memory of a dead teenager into a quasi-religious cult while the elements of fire and water are a recurring motif. Aptly this revival is at the Arcola, within spitting distance of the play’s setting.

Originally published by TheArtsShelf

Running at the Arcola until 11 October