Archive for December, 2021

2:22 A Ghost Story (Gielgud Theatre)

Posted: December 11, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Helen Murray

Writer: Danny Robins

Director: Matthew Dunster

⭐️⭐️

It’s Christmas, so we must have a ghost story. The reason for the connection is unclear, but it could have something to do with Charles Dickens. Lying in wait to answer the call was Danny Robins’ modern take on Gothic horror, which enjoyed a limited run at the Noël Coward Theatre a few months back and it now returns to the West End, completely recast.

Sam (Elliot Cowan) and Jenny (Giovanna Fletcher) have recently moved into an old house, along with their infant daughter, Phoebe. The house is now undergoing extensive refurbishment. Anna Fleischle’s imposing set design tells us instantly that things are not quite right. The place looks creepy and it sounds creaky. Glass patio doors anticipate the sudden appearance of uninvited visitors. A baby monitor blares out Phoebe’s eerie whimpering. A large digital clock hanging above a door looks completely incongruous in its old fashioned setting. 

We know from the start that something unworldly is going to happen at precisely 2:22 am and the clock becomes vital to building up suspense late in the play. The action takes place over an evening in which Sam and Jenny are hosting neighbours Ben (James Buckley) and Lauren (Stephanie Beatrix). Various tensions emerge, but, crucially, Jenny is convinced to the point of hysteria that the house is haunted and Ben believes strongly in the paranormal, while Sam and Lauren remain firmly sceptical.

The quartet’s banal conversations continue well into the night and, when the clock shows midnight, a thunderstorm arrives on cue; only two hours and twenty-two minutes to go, but, thankfully, the play is not being performed in real time. Director Matthew Dunster’s competent, but frequently pedestrian production struggles to address the problem of a first act in which hardly anything happens. Sudden bursts of loud screeching and flashing lights occur at intervals, but they bear no relevance to any story that is unfolding, leaving a feeling that the most likely reason for their inclusion could be to ensure that the audience does not fall asleep.

The second act is slightly more engaging, as the deadly hour gets closer and at least the climax involves more than just cheap shocks. The nature of the denouement is utterly predictable, but its specifics are not and, as in all the best ghost stories, the outcome makes absolutely no sense.

The creative team for this production could have done worse than listen to the advice of Elvis Presley: “A little less conversation, a little more action, please”. As it stands, the ghastly chitchat exceeds the ghostly apparitions by a ratio far greater than 2.22 to 1.

Performance date: 10 December 2021

Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Alice Childress

Director: Nancy Medina

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Any idea that Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’s angry comedy from 1955, is outdated has been countered as recently as 2019 when the Best Picture Oscar winner, Green Book, was criticised widely for representing a white person’s view of America’s racial divisions. Childress, an actress herself, lambasts the dramatic arts for misrepresenting her race and adhering to cosy conventions in an era when the Civil Rights movement was only in its infancy.

The writer voices her rage mainly through the character of Wiletta Mayer (a storming performance from Tanya Moodie), an experienced black actress who is fed up with playing maids. She is cast in a leading role in a new play to be directed for Broadway by eminent film director Al Manners, given tyrannical authority by Rory Keenan. Manners brandishes liberal credentials, but orders white cast and crew members that they should not eat with their black counterparts and refuses to listen to Wiletta’s pleas to make aspects of the play and her performance more true to life. 

Childress presents her earnest arguments encased in a light comedy of backstage bitchery and theatrical in jokes. Perhaps she needed to give a sugar coating to her bitter pill in order to get it to the Broadway stage in 1955. Director Nancy Medina’s production on the Dorfman Theatre’s thrust stage needs to negotiate some tricky changes of tone in getting the play to work. The awfulness of the drama being rehearsed is exaggerated to the point that we could be watching The Play That Goes Wrong and this may be followed swiftly by an impassioned speech about racial injustice; however, the transitions between broad comedy and high drama are always handled deftly.

The company in the rehearsal room includes three other black members. Cyril Nri’s Sheldon Forester is a hardened veteran, inclined to agree with Wiletta, but more inclined to make sure that he can pay his bills. Millie Davis (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) is a sassy younger actress always armed with a smart quip and the enthusiastic juvenile lead is John Nevins (Daniel Adeosun), whose most notable prior experience has been as one of the children in Porgy and Bess; nonetheless, Manners promises him Hollywood stardom and thereby secures compliance on his production.

Arguably, all Childress’s characters in this play are stereotypes, but that rather strengthens the points which she is making. Joe Bannister is the harassed assistant director wandering around with his clipboard, John Hollingworth has fun hamming it up as the company’s ham actor and Emma Canning is charming as the ingénue being touched inappropriately by her director and pursued ill-advisedly by her leading man. Rounding things off, Gary Lilburn contributes a delightful cameo as the septuagenarian theatre caretaker who has seen it all before.

In staging this highly accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable revival, the National is asking itself and the wider theatre world some intriguing questions. While laughing, audiences should be pondering over how much of 1950s Broadway lingers on this side of the Atlantic today.

Performance date: 9 December 2021