Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 16 October 2021
It’s a long, long wait to 2.22am in 2: 22 A Ghost Story, when strange things may or may not be taking place in the early hours of the morning in the house that Jenny and Sam have moved into with their new baby, mostly an unseen presence but not unheard one, as she’s frequently to be heard crying on the baby monitor in the living room. (Amongst other neat discoveries in Danny Robins’ debut play, we learn how they become popularised by the grisly story of the abduction and murder of transatlantic flying pioneer Charles Lindbergh in 1932, which led to concerned parents investing in ‘radio nurses’ to enable them to keep an ear on their sleeping children).
But while Robins’ play — and especially Matthew Dunster’s production, with its disconcerting soundtrack by Ian Dickinson underscored by rutting foxes in the streets beyond — is adept at ratcheting up the tension, the biggest source of it is whether Lily Allen, making her West End stage debut, would be up to the task. Not since Lindsay Lohan made her theatrical debut in 2014 at the Playhouse Theatre in Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow have the stakes been quite as high.
I can happily report Lily Allen is just fine — sometimes she screeches a bit, but that’s an understandable reaction to the sometimes improbable writing. The shape-shifting pop icon — who has also opened her own vintage boutique and brought out her own sex toy — makes a credible attempt at projecting a relatable concern for her newborn child, against the competing scepticism of her husband who recently left her alone in the house while he was on a business trip. And lost his mobile on the moors.
There’s a lot of padding in Robins’ play, which basically has to maintain our interest across two hours as the couple entertain a former University pal of the husband’s, who works in mental health but whose own unrequited passion for him leads her to settle for a unsuitable partners like her current suitor, a Cockney builder who refurbished her home.
But this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s masterpiece about two couples interacting over drinks and power plays between them. In fact if I was a completely uninformed theatre guy I’d admire the structure and say that the supernatural element made it seem fresh.
In fact, its pretty lame, tame stuff — even the denouement when it finally comes may blindside others, but the pleasures, such as they are, reside more in the tensions between the characters than the overriding one of whether 2: 22 will produce a more chilling explanation for what’s been happening in this yuppie home gathering.
And under Dunster’s careful direction, there are nuanced performances from the entire ensemble. Hadley Fraser, who at the start of the pandemic was starring in a musical revival of City of Angels whose opening had to be aborted by its arrival, shifts gear to legitimate stage actor, not for the first time, to prove he is as compelling without songs as he is with them. Jake Wood and Julia Chan, meanwhile, manage a comparable shift from little screen to big wide stage with authority.
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