Philip Ridley's play Ghost From A Perfect Place divided people when it was first performed in 1994 and it will divide people now. That's because it is divided itself — into two diametrically opposite halves. So the chances are, if you like one, you won't like the other.
The first chunk of the play sees turncoat tough guy Travis Flood (a wonderfully sneery Michael Feast) return to his old stomping ground in Bethnal Green, after years away in self-imposed exile in Hollywood. He meets doddering Mrs Sparks (expertly brought to life by Sheila Reid) who starts to recount the heartaches she and the area have endured while the enforcer has been absent. It's a brilliant two-hander, pregnant with tension and carefully-suppressed meaning that unwinds at a teasing, gripping pace. Flood follows the stories Sparks tells like a man being led back into a dream and the audience can't help but go with him. Ridley's stage-sense is irresistible and his dialogue is funny, true and thoughtful. We didn't want the interval to get in the way and break up the flow.
Then the second half: a face-off between Flood and the girl gang who now run the local area, led by Sparks roughneck granddaughter Rio (Florence Hall). Sadly, most of the work done in the first half is undone here — the action that follows feels obvious, slightly silly and utterly false. The gang-speak is simultaneously over and underwritten: some shtick about Queen Kong being a good example. The three gold-clad girls in the gang are no match for Sheila Reid, and the character of Flood is downgraded from an avatar for the audience to a lifeless, passive listener. Torture, intimidation, swearing and shouting follow: more is certainly less.
Other people at last night's show professed to prefer the second half with its more direct emphasis on sexiness and violence. But no matter whether you like the subtle build-up or the showy denouement, it's clear that the two halves pull against each other, unravelling the play and letting the meaning inside it slip away. Ridley is undoubtedly a fine talent and his plays veer off in pleasingly unorthodox directions; but often they run out of ideas too soon and the characters are left adrift.
Perhaps the best way to look at Ghost From A Perfect Place is as two plays rather than one, both examining the subject of snatched power and what happens when it is abused; then the twin forces of fire and water that are set in opposition here might not extinguish each other.
Ghost From A Perfect Place is on at the Arcola Theatre until 11 October 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.