sat 18/09/2021

2:22 A Ghost Story, Noël Coward Theatre review - unconvincing, sporadically amusing genre play | reviews, news & interviews

2:22 A Ghost Story, Noël Coward Theatre review - unconvincing, sporadically amusing genre play

2:22 A Ghost Story, Noël Coward Theatre review - unconvincing, sporadically amusing genre play

A few shocks and laughs but lacking in character-led credibility

A night of expectations: from left, Jake Wood, Julia Chan, Lily Allen and Hadley FraserImages (c) Helen Murray

Danny Robins tells us what we’re in for with his title, so we’re warned. And it’s not long before we get the “things that go bump in the night”, the creaking floorboards, the “I know this sounds crazy, but…” because they’re the essential components of the genre. Reviewing a ghost story and complaining about that stuff really isn’t on – like critiquing a pantomime for its audience participation. 

That’s not to say that any genre piece is easy to write or to stage. Since the structure is so tight, the expectations set and the narrative arc visible from curtain-up to curtain call, chiselling out the characters, finding the (if you will) poetry in the story, making the show sing is all the greater the challenge. It’s quite fun stepping outside the world created for us by director Matthew Dunster, and mentally going behind the scenes, imagining one of those time-lapse films in the style of a stadium being constructed, working out how the suspense gets into the play and how it grows in our imaginations. That meta stuff has a somewhat ghostly quality to it, after all.

Jenny, a teacher, and Sam, a university lecturer in Astronomy, have moved into a big old house in the East End with their new born baby gurgling in her cot. (Given their jobs, their purchase of such a home is far less likely than its actually being haunted.) They’re still at the stage when the towering responsibilities of parenthood haven’t fully kicked in, so their previous lives are getting smaller every day as daughter Phoebe crowds out everything else. As is often the case, Sam glides past much of that, while Jenny, the mum, continually sets and resets the baby monitor, sorts out the feeds and endures the “babies don’t have an off switch” mental marathon that flattens life into a quest for rest. 

Big issues are imported on to the stage by the writer almost as decoration

The stress isn’t helped by the house, set designer Anna Fleischle’s large room capturing its awkward half-and-half state beautifully: stage left, the shiny new kitchen with its integrated recycling bins and giant skylights; stage right, a 1960s gas fire and peeling wallpaper. The previous owner did not want to sell, but bowed to the wave of gentrification that can hit a London postcode like a tsunami. She priced the house keenly so the new owners would respect the property – which they’re not.

Friends Lauren and Ben turn up for a small, anxious dinner party, the first since Phoebe arrived. She’s a clinical psychologist, a university friend of Sam’s and drinks a lot. He’s a builder, all cockney attitude and might as well be wearing a hi-vis bib with the words “I’m working class” on the back, so much is that fact hammered home. Sam, smug and confidence spilling over to arrogance, still close to Lauren, and Ben, rough and ready for anything but prickly in this new milieu, are vying to be alpha males and, sure enough, they’re soon locking horns.

When Sam was away looking at stars on the island of Sark, Jenny has heard noises – not once, not twice, but three times and always at 2.22 am. She thinks it’s something supernatural, but Sam doesn’t, Lauren isn’t sure and Ben’s been through this stuff before, so he "knows”. The men sit at either end of the belief spectrum, while Jenny edges further and further towards Ben’s pole and Lauren slides a little this way and a little that. The arguments turn nasty as the clock ticks towards the allotted hour and the tension builds.Lily Allen in 2-22 A Ghost StoryLily Allen (Jenny, pictured above) and Julia Chan (Lauren) are making their West End debuts, while Hadley Fraser (Sam) and Jake Wood (Ben) are perhaps known as much for their screen work as their stage outings. Given those disparate backgrounds, the ensemble comes together very well indeed. Allen is a little stiff in her movements and might find more in the lines with variations in vocal pitch and volume, Chan could offer a few more hints as to her motivations in her interactions with Sam and Jenny, Fraser could dial back the self-satisfaction a little and the character would lose nothing, and Wood could narrow the wide boy shtick too. But that’s nit-picking really – Dunster gets the performances he needs alongside the name recognition to pull in the punters. 

Danny Robins has a stellar CV behind him (you need one to get a new play into the West End) with his podcast The Battersea Poltergeist rated the number one drama pod across the whole world, but the writing here just doesn’t cut it. The pace saps with an overload of repetitive bickering, as positions are stated and re-stated – and the reveals come a little too quickly. There are plenty of laughs, but too many rely on Ben’s East End caricature and Sam’s wisecrack and grin routine. The women’s roles are underwritten, the lapsed Catholicism in Jenny introduced but not explored, Lauren’s mental health expertise worn as one might wear a brooch, so little does it bring to the plot. The central theme is also on shaky ground since scientists are not hostile towards the unexplained, accommodating contradictory models for the subatomic and cosmological realms for the last 100 years.

Class conflict, refugees, cheap imported labour, parenting, regrets, online dating, urban alienation, ageing and far too many fucking foxes flit in and out of the play, but they’re largely inserted to add a few more pixels to a Sam or a Lauren, the themes not explored in any meaningful way. Big issues are imported on to the stage by the writer almost as decoration, rather than exported out to the house by the characters as we learn more about the two couples in front of us. It feels forced and there’s enough forcing inherent in the genre as it stands.

Ultimately, shows like this turn on whether the credibility of the characters can sustain the artifice of the supernatural (on which Stephen King scores so highly). For all the effort put into creating the haunted house and its increasingly nervous occupants, that high bar was not crossed, so the suspense was diluted and the denouement undermined.  

Puck’s shadows have not offended, but they needed to be much more corporeal, rounded, natural men and women to unsettle us, forcing us to embrace fully the ghostly shadows of the supernatural that can whisper into even the most cynical of ears. On returning home, I slept with the light off. 

Director Matthew Dunster gets the performances he needs alongside the name recognition to pull in the punters

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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