To see Kean act, said Coleridge, was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Charlotte Jones’s much anticipated new play, her first theatre work since providing the libretto for The Woman in White, is similarly struck with the consequences of an electric storm.
It is Halloween, and the doorbell will signal an importunate child, trick or treating, or a new guest at the impromptu party arranged by the celebrity ghost writer, Max Villiers (Matthew Marsh), in his comfortable north London home. Max is trying to make his new 65-inch plasma screen television work, juggling remotes.
Increasingly, the screen is invaded by images of his daughter Anna when young, a daughter who is now a peace activist in Ramallah, like Rachel Corrie, en route to Burma. It turns out that Anna was a human shield from an early age, trying to save her younger brother in a gnarled old yew tree during a thunder and lightning storm fifteen years ago.
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 Dark at the Donmar was, for me, a muddled misfire).
Max and his wife Harriet (Eleanor David) are in marital meltdown. That afternoon, Harriet has bought an East Anatolian semi-antique rug, made love to the salesman (Simon Kassianides), and nearly killed herself. She was rescued by Max’s friend, Eddie Fox (Lloyd Hutchinson), a former Carthusian monk who is now Max’s personal assistant and beer buddy.
Eddie has hooked up with Jacklyn, a slightly weird rambler (Adie Allen), on Hampstead Heath. Max, meanwhile, on meeting the subject of his next book, a pneumatic glamour model (Christina Cole), who reminds him, disastrously, of his daughter, has also encountered Anna’s old schoolfriend, Imogen Cumberbatch (Katherine Parkinson), heavily pregnant, who turns up at the party with her husband Marcus (Orlando Seale), a glib, but oddly repressed, civil servant from Surrey.
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 – the heath, the restaurant, the rug shop – by changing the colour, and the temperature, of the stage. The family video plays an increasing role, too, in turning the screw to a crescendo of birth, loss and dismay.
Matthew Marsh, looking a little trimmer than he was in the other really fine new play he graced this year, The Overwhelming, sets the pace with his brilliant comic timing, playing Max rather like one of Simon Gray’s heroes, both lost in the past and befuddled in the present. Eleanor David is beautiful, sexy and vulnerable as Harriet, while Adie Allen as Jacklyn confirms her reputation as a comic talent to treasure.