Ghost from a Perfect Place is a play that transcends the era in which it was written, swirling images from the past with forewarnings for the future.
Controversial when first staged in 1994 (the Guardian’s Michael Billington famously slated it as “pornographic”), the Arcola’s gutsy twentieth anniversary production is by no means a walk in the park.
Playwright Philip Ridley draws us instantly into the East End’s insalubrious past, when former gangster Travis Flood arrives on the doorstep of grandmother Torchie Sparkes. “Don’t you know who I am?” he cries, his silk suit and white lily at odds with the flaking flat.
Over tea and biscuits, Torchie, played daintily by Benidorm’s Sheila Reid, entertains Travis with stories of her tumultuous past, lacing them with nostalgic snippets from back in her heyday. The entrance of her bombshell granddaughter Rio cranks up the pace as we are thrown into the inner workings of her girl gang, The Disciples.
Somewhere between The Bangles and Macbeth’s Witches, the gold-lamé clad trio make for fascinating viewing. Rachel Redford plays one of Rio’s loyal followers, Miss Kerosene, like a woman possessed, searing with energy and anger.
Much of the second half hinges on the power struggle between Travis and the girls, who fashion a world devoid of men in order to survive. Michael Feast is every bit the suave old-school mobster in his rendering of Flood, with an uncanny likeness to Michael Caine.
Out of his depth he may be, but Travis is guarding a secret toxic enough to topple Rio from her lofty throne. Layered between Ridley’s lyrical, effervescent prose, it is the bearing of this fact gives the play its enduring significance.
Director Russell Bolam injects Ghost from a Perfect Place with just the right level of dystopian horror and fashions the most violent scenes to leave a formidable visual imprint on the mind of the audience. However it is Ridley’s script that deserves the most applause.
The master storyteller uses each character to conjure fantastical images of lives lived and dreams dreamt, as if the stage were filled with far more than just five characters.
Ghost from a Perfect Place is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin St, E8 3DL until 11 October