Charlotte Jones’ latest The Lightning Play received its world premiere on Friday (17 November 2006, previews from 9 November) at north London’s Almeida Theatre (See News, 29 Sep 2006).
Matthew Marsh stars as Max Villiers, a celebrity ghost writer who, with his talented shopper wife Harriet (Eleanor David), is hosting an impromptu Halloween party in north London. As Max connects his first plasma TV, the evening is hijacked by interference from the past, trick-or-treaters at the door and strangers on the brand new rug.
Also in the cast are Lloyd Hutchinson, Adie Allen, Katherine Parkinson, Simon Kassianides, Orlando Seale and Christina Cole. The premiere production, directed by Anna Mackmin, continues its limited season until 6 January 2007.
First night critics mostly enjoyed the play, although they felt Jones owed perhaps too large a debt to Edward Albee, Mike Leigh and Alan Ayckbourn for the drama’s mix of comedy and tragedy in a highly-charged social situation. Reviewers praised the performances of the cast – particularly those of Matthew Marsh and Eleanor David as the central couple whose relationship faces meltdown.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) - “A play which starts as a domestic comedy deepens in tone and mystery, until some painful revelations and arguments have taken us from Alan Ayckbourn territory deep into Edward Albee. But Jones, who has written the play with consummate skill, a bitter twang, and some very good jokes, is very much her own playwright here, developing in accomplishment beyond the promise of In Flame and the achievement of Humble Boy…. The scenes are ingeniously interlocked within a progressive structure that simultaneously looks over its own shoulder. Anna Mackmin’s beautifully rhythmical production is set in a huge white room designed by Lez Brotherston and lit by Tim Mitchell to suggest other locations…. Marsh… sets the pace with his brilliant comic timing…. Eleanor David is beautiful, sexy and vulnerable as Harriet, while Adie Allen as Jacklyn confirms her reputation as a comic talent to treasure.”
Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “If you can imagine Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rewritten by Mike Leigh, you will have some idea, though maybe not a lot, of what is going on…. Both the parents and each of their guests carry into the play a rambling, complex, overlapping backstory of considerable if wayward fascination, and although the play is entirely set in the living room, we also visit neighbourhood restaurants and the local park as well as various other locations often seen in flashbacks. The combination of Halloween and flashes of unexpected lightning suggests a mysterious, magical, mythical time in which anything can happen and often does…. Jones comes over as a writer willing to take her play anywhere the mood might lead her even if she herself often seems uncertain of its ultimate destination. The result may be dramatically untidy, but it is seldom less than compelling: hers is a genuinely original playwriting voice, and she often writes like a magic-realist novelist or a poet. What she is, of course, is a theatrical conjuror, and her cast have to be as quick on their feet as they are if they are to capture the play’s many fast-changing directions.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Charlotte Jones, as we know from Humble Boy, is a great entertainer. She creates lively characters and dialogue, but if I have any reservation about her highly enjoyable new play, it is simply that Jones, like her ghost-writer hero, is haunted by images from the past…. Jones works out her ideas with sprightly humour: Jacklyn is a particularly vivid character whom Adie Allen endows with a luminous eccentricity. I also felt for Matthew Marsh's Max, who hides his failures under a defensive irony. But, as the play progresses, the echoes become over-insistent. The socially catastrophic party suggests Ayckbourn, and the marital squabbles evoke Albee. There's even a hint of Macbeth…. Anna Mackmin's production is stylishly done and there are anchored performances from Eleanor David (as Harriet), Lloyd Hutchinson (Eddie) and Katherine Parkinson (Imogen). Jones is a good writer. I just feel that her Halloween play offers a few too many familiar tricks alongside the undeniable treats.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) - If a dramatist sets a play on Halloween, as Charlotte Jones does at the Almeida, you can be pretty sure that the social masks will eventually come off and nasty emotions will go bump in the night. And so it proves in The Lightning Play, which begins as a not-so-funny drawing room comedy and, soon after a girl trick-and-treater has appeared at the door dressed as Harold Shipman, turns into a north London version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, complete with rudeness, rows and revelations about a defunct child…. But where’s the play? Jones answers that with the none-too-original dramatic device of bringing together a cross-section of people in an ad-hoc party…. Jones again displays her gift for characterisation, her generosity of spirit and her unfashionable interest in odd, slightly spooky events. But Anna Mackmin’s able direction couldn’t stop me feeling that the play lacks unity and coherence.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The Lightning Play sees a return to form, though it doesn't have the contours of a classic West End hit like Humble Boy. Structurally, the piece is a mess, with excessive and clumsy use of flashbacks. And while Humble Boy was inspired by Hamlet, The Lightning Play seems to owe a heavy debt to both Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without delivering the knock-out punch of either. Still, it's funny, touching and consistently entertaining, and perhaps it would be greedy to ask for more…. Insults zing about with entertaining malice, but the play also touches on spirituality, friendship and the corrosive nature of loss. Anna Mackmin directs a sprightly, elegant production that almost manages to conceal the play's uncertain sense of identity and direction, and designer Lez Brotherston has some tricks up his sleeve with his opulently elegant set. Matthew Marsh is both enjoyably sarky and unexpectedly moving as the husband, while Eleanor David plays his wife with elegant despair…. It's just a shame that with so much going on, there finally seems to be less to The Lightning Play than meets the eye.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (1 star) – De Jongh was unimpressed with the “drearily derivative theatrical cocktail…. ponderously directed by Anna Mackmin.” He said: “Ghostly things predictably occur… Jones contrives to bring social misfits to the home of Matthew Marsh's Max Villiers, ghost writer to super-trash celebrities and prone to pert wise-cracks and flippancies…. Awkwardly deploying flashbacks, Jones unnecessarily shows how Max, to his depressed wife Harriet's annoyance, comes to invite visitors. Katherine Parkinson's plain, pregnant young woman, sporting a silly voice, Adie Allen's lonely hippie, sounding almost as grotesque, and a very lapsed monk set the silly tone. In Albee-ish fashion the taboo subject of the Villiers' dead son is dragged into the open, while the party mood turns unbelievably rude and revelatory. Lez Brotherston's dysfunctional set with its unneeded, grand ceiling, could have funded five fringe productions.”
- by Caroline Ansdell