Friday, 30 April 2021

Stage-to-screen review: Tarantula

If the last year has seen culture put on pause nobody remembered to tell Philip Ridley - Tarantula is his seventeenth premiere since March 2020. Granted, some of those barely came in at two minutes, but he's given Georgie Henley the monologue equivalent of a marathon, an epic that comes closer to two hours. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was a teenage rom-com from the opening, if you didn't know who'd written it, and if narrator Toni didn't abruptly freeze mid-sentence whenever she says her boyfriend Michael's name (and I'm not sure if director Wiebke Green entirely thought out how this would come across on a live stream, or maybe making the audience think the feed had frozen was intentional.) After a meet-cute at a school charity event, the self-conscious and scholarly teenager goes on her first-ever date with a charming boy. Until she looks the wrong way at a man with a spider tattoo and the rom-com abruptly turns into horror.

If Tarantula is long for a monologue its structure is a bit like two of them thrown together: The first is this opening sweet story with a shadow of impending doom, and the trauma, confusion and fragmented memories that result when that doom arrives and derails the story. The violent incident isn't the end of her trouble as the man with the spider tattoo remains a threatening presence in Toni's life, until her family finally move away from London for their own safety.

This is where the distinct second half of the story kicks in, and for me it's the weaker half. We now see a very different, confident to the point of cockiness, version of Toni: In her new life she's reinvented herself, but just as she lies about her background to the new people she meets, the happy life she and her family have found is too perfect not to be lying to the audience and herself. In a way this is the more ambitious kind of tragedy Ridley is exploring in the play: Toni has found what looks like happiness but it's incredibly fragile and is, at best, economical with the truth, at worst complete fantasy. But in execution this lacks the pace and tension of the first half - I wasn't sure where it was going and I did find the ending a bit of a damp squib. Henley impresses throughout though, getting through a hell of a lot of script full of abrupt emotional twists and turns.

Tarantula by Philip Ridley is live-streaming until the 1st of May from Southwark Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

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