Friday, 19 September 2014

Theatre review: Ghost From a Perfect Place

Philip Ridley's fascination with all things relating to his native East End resulted in his screenplay for the 1990 film The Krays. East End gangsters and the peculiar brand of nostalgia they inspire were a theme he revisited four years later in Ghost From a Perfect Place, although this being Ridley's stage work it occupies an even stranger universe than the real one. The Perfect Place in question is the past, when Bow was terrorised by a gang led by Travis Flood. They were responsible for a number of bodies in the cement of the flyover as well as some lifelong scarring in those who crossed them and survived, and their leader in particular, known as the man with the lily in his lapel, inspired such fear that crowds would part like the Red Sea for him. And yet the locals remember these as "the heydays." As the police started to catch up with the gang he took his money and fled to America, but now Travis (Michael Feast) has returned for one last look at what used to be his turf.

When he picks up a prostitute in a cemetery, she sends Travis on ahead to her flat, where her grandmother Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) recognises him. As they wait for her granddaughter to return, they reminisce about the heydays, but as Torchie catches him up on her life Travis remembers a few things he'd tried to forget.

Ghost From a Perfect Place's two acts are very distinct, and the first is a particular examination of this bizarre nostalgia for a time when the streets may have felt safer, but only if everyone toed the line and turned a blind eye to some terrible things going on behind closed doors. Reid really spells this out with her combination of misty-eyed recollection and bitter memories of her her life fell apart after the gangsters left. Feast, meanwhile, who's been making a specialty of these menacing characters lately, builds up the image of the fearless thug in the expensive suit, in time for the tables to be turned after the interval.

This is when Torchie's granddaughter Rio Sparks (Florence Hall) returns, along with two of her Disciples, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford.) Deciding Travis hasn't shown the right amount of respect they tie him to a chair and threaten bloody revenge, but something is keeping Rio from carrying it out. Here the play becomes a look at women taking back the night in the most extreme way possible, the gang in their gold miniskirts have all suffered at the hands of men before, and now get their own way in life by embracing extraordinary cruelty themselves.

Russell Bolam, who directed Shivered, returns to Ridley's work with a confident touch, knowing how to handle both the darkness and the lyricism in a play where characters regularly break into stories from their past, inviting their (sometimes literally captive) audience to put themselves in the scene. As is usually the case with Ridley there's an awful lot going on at the same time - Travis' contempt for the tacky look the successors to his patch have chosen as a uniform speaks volumes about the way people accept horrors if they're dressed up in nice suits. The story's major plot twist is telegraphed early on and I was slightly worried the reveal would make for a disappointing finale; but while the audience has indeed been clued in to what the big secret is, the way it plays out in the end comes with a couple of further, characteristically nasty twists of the knife.

Ghost From a Perfect Place by Philip Ridley is booking until the 11th of October at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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