Tarantula by Philip Ridley – Southwark Playhouse, online

Philip Ridley, king of the monologue, has maintained his remarkable productivity for Southwark Playhouse during lockdown. Tarantula is his second new play of the past year, after The Poltergeist which premiered in a streamed version last November. Tarantula, which is also streamed, is characterised by the same queasy, urban normality, which is always, in Ridley’s work, built on sand. Anything and everything can collapse without warning, with a stomach-dropping lurch and the closer you feel to a character, the more it’s going to hurt. Georgie Henley plays Toni, a typical East London teenager, short on confidence but meeting her first boyfriend, having a first kiss. Revealing what transforms her from this into a teeth-grindingly manic wall of positive mantras, motivational statements and “being the best you can” would be a spoiler, but it is not pleasant.

Ridley delights in the thinness of our veneers, so vulnerable to deep marks left by casual encounters, which will never be covered over. This breaking through the surface and revealing of something much less civilised is the key to the great parts he writes. Henley, performing for over 100 minutes without an interval, pulls off the kind of technical tour de force that, in a different generation, was remarkable. Ridley has written so many of these parts that we take them a little for granted, but Henley does an excellent job lulling us with a very convincing picture of a teenage girl, and her family, and a disturbing version of a gym instructor, perma-grin plastered across her face, patronising to a staggering degree, and able only to exist in a fantasy bubble. She is highly watchable, and we must hope she gets onto the Southwark’s physical stage very soon, but on camera she projects a great deal of energy

Tarantula is perhaps simpler than some of Ridley’s other work and, therefore, lacking an element of uncertainty. It’s always clear what’s going on, because we can see right through Toni’s delusion. However, it is full of images that stick, and uncompromising in the way it makes us focus on the things we really do not want to consider. It is clear-eyed, charming and nasty: unmistakably a Philip Ridley play, and a show that keeps the bar high for essential new writing at Southwark Playhouse.

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