“Pornographic” claimed The Guardian’s Michael Billington on reviewing the premiere of Philip Ridley’s Ghost From A Perfect Place in 1994. That word still haunts the play for this 20th anniversary revival at the Arcola – it remains as shocking and poignant as ever.
Mostly, the play shocks for its extreme depiction of females – specifically young girls – that results in a climactic torture scene. This only works through Ridley’s clever structuring that lulls us into a false sense of security and haunts us with parallels and mirror images. It’s a play of two halves, the first act introducing us to ageing East End gangster (but don’t call him that) Travis Flood (Michael Feast) as he returns from Hollywood to his old grounds. There he converses with sweet grandmother Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) and together they reminisce about the heydays over a cup of tea and a biscuit. Flood is a lovable rogue with a silky (literally) exterior and a warm-heart, his career built upon loyalty and respect. He’s not what you’d expect from a criminal.
Neither are the girls. The introduction of Torchie’s granddaughter Rio (Florence Hall) flips the play on its head. Aided by her gang, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), they reveal their love for pyromania and hatred of men. They are feisty and aggressive, unpredictable and fanatical, having concocted their own religion based on Saint Donna (Rio’s dead mother). That is, until a revelation from Flood shatters all their expectations.
To an extent this is a reverential play on the power of the past and the taint of memory, but there’s depth to it that’s somewhat ambiguous. Undoubtedly this is a criticism of youth and gang culture, the fear of the elderly of being usurped by the next generation. Yet specifically the focus is feminist. The depiction of the girls could be read as a twist on misogyny: here it’s womankind asserting aggressive dominance over men purely based on gender. Perhaps, also, this could be seen as anti-feminist, a male playwright portraying his fears of a female dominant world – something that’s still poignant in this day and age of modern feminism. Flood, however, isn’t afraid – his return marks a reclaiming of patriarchy and masculinity. Religion, too, doesn’t escape unscathed. The construct of Saint Donna, formed through a dream and presented to Flood and the audience through an eccentric “sermon”, is obsessive and ridiculous, yet the girls follow blindly. It is the basis of their gang, their raison d’être.
Ghost From A Perfect Place is, therefore, an incredibly controversial and unsettling play. Opinions of this production will undoubtedly be split, as they were for the play’s premiere. But pornographic? Not here. Russell Bolam has directed the piece with subtlety and nuance, for a play that skirts the fringes of acceptability without stepping over the line. It provokes without being wholly distasteful. In part this is due to the use of comedy littered throughout the script. It’s black comedy to be sure, but it brings relief during moments of high tension, balancing light and shade.
More so it’s due to the well-realised characters, performed with conviction and sincerity by the talented cast. Feast amuses and frightens as the domineering, Michael Caine-esque Flood and Reid plays a lovely, bumbling Torchie. As you’d expect, though, it’s the three girls who dominate the production, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their roles – Redford as the hyperactive Kerosene and Brookes as sidekick Sulphur. Hall especially stands out as Rio: sexy, empowered, yet vulnerable. Ghost From A Perfect Place is guaranteed to shock, but its imagery will have you questioning rather than squirming in your seat.
Watch: Ghost From A Perfect Place runs at the Arcola theatre until 11th October.