2:22 – A Ghost Story at the Noël Coward Theatre – review
Lily Allen makes her West End debut in the piece
Much excitement has preceded the premiere of this new West End ghost story. Mainly because it marks the West End debut of the singer Lily Allen. And partly because it is a first play by Danny Robins, creator of the hugely successful paranormal podcast The Battersea Poltergeist.
So, first things first. Allen is absolutely fine as fragile young mother Jenny who has been left alone by her smug husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) in the big, dilapidated house they are doing up, and has become terrified by the noises she is hearing in their baby's bedroom. She's confident on stage, and although she won't be troubling Judi Dench in terms of vocal modulation any time soon, she gives this slightly chilly play an attractive, winning and warm centre.
As for Robins, he has crafted an effective dinner party piece, surrounded by supernatural sensations. He writes well and confidently, and with shrewd observation not only of the ghostly but of the human traits that enable us to believe or not believe in strange goings-on from another life. It's nowhere near as terrifying as The Woman in Black, but nevertheless it delivers surprises.
The cleverness of 2:22 – A Ghost Story is that from the very first scene, we know that something awful is going to happen at the time in the title, clearly shown on a ticking digital clock, so we are waiting on the edge of our seats to know what it is. That scene opens with a scream as Jenny trips over a child's toy and ends with another more blood-curdling one, accompanied by a blinding, red neon light which is in itself terrifying.
When next we see her, Jenny's hosting a dinner party. The mood is already uneasy because Sam, who is writing a book called Astronomy for Idiots, has just returned from a star-gazing trip to Sark where he failed to return her worried phone calls about the things that went bump in the night. The guests are Lauren and Ben, Sam's university friend and her bumptious builder boyfriend. Lauren and Sam's unspoken history together and Sam's contempt for Ben ratchet up the tension still further.
But it's when Jenny starts to describe her terror about what is going on, and Sam, a pragmatist, insists there must always be a rational explanation for everything, that Team Belief take on Sam's scepticism and the action takes off.
Anna Fleischle provides the perfect setting for the debate, conjuring exactly the kind of room where an upwardly mobile couple with their "expensive soap and their cheap Albanians" might strip back years of history to make a dream home; peeling wallpaper on one-side, expensive kitchen on the other. Lucy Carter's lighting and Ian Dickinson's sound design, with its screeching foxes and insistent heartbeats, pull the mood ever tauter.
The success of the play lies in the way director Matthew Dunster treats it as a domestic drama with ghosts attached. It's often very funny – there's a good joke about the way that Alexa won't respond to Sam's arrogant demands – and always sharp-eyed. As Sam, Hadley Fraser conjures brilliantly the sort of profoundly irritating man who will always want to be right and will insist on choosing expensive wine in a corner shop. Jake Wood (of EastEnders fame) gives Ben the right degree of swagger with just a hint of vulnerability; Julia Chan in her own West End debut as Lauren, suggests a lifetime of longing as well as a scientific mind sharper than any in the room.
Their naturalism, and the believability of their relationships, ground the play in a truth that allows its wider supernatural questions to fly. I found the ending disappointing, but I enjoyed the journey.