In Review

2:22 A Ghost Story review: Lily Allen makes a triumphant stage debut

People are snapping up tickets to see this ‘chilling romp’ at the Noël Coward Theatre

At a time when theatres have to work hard to get “bums on seats”, some have “leant on the power of veteran actors – Ian McKellen, Ralph Fiennes – to draw in the crowds”. Yet at the Noël Coward Theatre, people are snapping up tickets to see a “theatre noob”, said Annabel Nugent in The Independent. On the other hand, she is a Grammy Award-winning pop star. For the first minute of Danny Robins’s 2:22 A Ghost Story, the knowledge that the woman alone on stage is Lily Allen making her West End debut is a bit of a distraction. But then the “novelty wears off”, and you become immersed in what turns out to be a “superb” performance. Jenny is a tired new mother who has become convinced that the big house that she and her “loathsome” academic husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) have just moved into is haunted. At 2.22am each night she hears footsteps circulating her baby’s cot. She reveals her fears over supper to a couple called Lauren and Ben, while smug Sam tries to explain them away. “Fuelled by wine and fear” the four decide to stay up to see what happens, and who is right.

“It’s a dark and stormy night, the foxes are howling and one of the characters really does say: ‘Look at all that fog out there.’” But the tension in this contemporary haunted house thriller is not only “due to things that go bump in the night”, said Clive Davis in The Times. Lauren (Julia Chan) is a “demure American” who may have designs on Sam; while Ben is a “rough and ready” builder who has dressed up for the evening, and who is irritated by his dressed-down host’s manner. And then, of course, there are the cracks exposed in Jenny and Sam’s marriage, as they bicker in their fashionably boho kitchen – a set brilliantly designed by Anna Fleischle.

You really wouldn’t know that Allen was making her stage debut in this “chilling romp”, said Kate Wyver in The Guardian. “She is strong as the frantic, afraid and exhausted Jenny”, even if the “constant paranoia” sometimes makes it feel “a bit strained”. But this is an ensemble piece, and the whole cast shines. Fraser “is so realistic it’s hard to believe he’s acting”. Ben “is written more broadly” – he is mainly there to challenge Sam – but EastEnders star Jake Wood revels in the role; and Chan brilliantly conveys Lauren’s shifting loyalties. Occasionally, the arguments escalate into “one-note yelling”, but Robins’s script is “quick and cleverly layered with clues”. Director Matthew Dunster orchestrates some genuinely chilling moments, and nothing detracts from the steadily growing tension, as a neon red digital clock “glares at us, ticking closer to 2:22”.

Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 (222aghoststory.com). Until 16 October. 

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