Lyonesse review – Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James fired up in a frustrating play

Penelope Skinner’s play opens in the West End

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Kristin Scott Thomas in Lyonesse, © Manuel Harlan

Penelope Skinner’s new play takes the form of a gothic thriller, mixes in some high farce and turns the whole thing into a compelling argument about control, about the way men betray women, and the way women betray themselves.

It’s funny, bold, and engrossing, featuring a raft of brilliant performances, most notably from Kristin Scott Thomas as the eccentric Elaine whose desire to tell her story shifts the entire narrative into gear.  Yet it’s also frustrating, ending up – despite some twists and turns along the way – much more conventional and obvious than it promises.

The opening scene introduces Kate, played by Lily James, a young film-maker anxious to succeed but overwhelmed by the detritus of her life – a young child, a movie director husband who wants a second baby, the traffic, the rain. Her boss at Lilith – “creating, developing, and producing female-driven stories which will change the world” – wants her to drop everything and head for Cornwall to meet Elaine, a once-famous actress who vanished entirely from sight and now wants to explain why.

Since she has been involved with two very famous men, there’s a hint that this will be a #MeToo moment, a revelation that will shake the industry.

Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas in a scene from Lyonesse in the West End
Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas in Lyonesse, © Manuel Harlan

There’s some sharp satire in this opening scene, but also a lot of exposition as Doon Mackichan’s wonderfully sneery Sue, hair streaked with pink that matches her trousers, sets her own expectations of what she wants Kate to do.

Once she reaches the house called Lyonesse, in tribute to a lost kingdom under the sea, the play takes off. The place is perfectly conjured by designer Georgia Lowe and sound designer Tingying Dong as a run-down mansion with a smoky fireplace and the sea bashing against the walls. We first see Scott Thomas in swimsuit and fur coat, wielding an axe with which she is chopping up furniture.

Slowly she and Kate form a bond, strengthened by the intervention of Chris (Sara Powell), a poet and a neighbour. Gradually too their overlapping stories of loss emerge. In a magical scene, Elaine tells her story, of a man who controlled and destroyed her life while Kate listens intently, recognising the parallels (perhaps too strong) with her own destiny.

Scott Thomas is superb, commanding the space with her presence and her widening eyes, at once mischievous and determined. This is a woman who takes on the sea in a daily swim, calming her mind in a battle against the waves; you feel the power of her decisions as well as her sadness. With her battered glamour and slightly crazed ferocity, she conveys both the sense of a woman taking one last chance to break out of a trap that her stalker has made – and the terrible sadness of a life wasted. “What if I am no longer spellbinding?” she asks, fingering her yellowing, old reviews.

James is less confident but equally appealing; she overdoes the jiggling leg of anxiety, but with her constantly twisting hands and nervous laughter, she makes visible just how badly Kate has been damaged by other people’s expectations. As she emerges in a different form under Cornwall’s spell, James conveys Kate’s fragile hopes that soon come into collision with the wishes of her husband (James Corrigan in a thankless role). As Chris, who is half in love with her too, Powell brings a gentle kindness and watchful understanding.

The whole thing is a bit baggy and broad, moving suddenly in different directions, but it’s bound together by Ian Rickson’s sensitive, detailed direction. Its themes are riveting, and although the final destination isn’t entirely satisfying, it’s hard not to enjoy the journey especially in the company of so strong a cast.

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Closed: 23 December 2023