Writer: Danny Robbins
Directors: Matthew Dunster & Isabel Marr
Now on a nationwide tour after hugely successful runs in London variously starring Lily Allen, Cheryl and Tom Felton, 2.22 – A Ghost Story is in Brighton for a pre-Halloween stint at the Theatre Royal. With its high-profile casting and promise of a fright-filled evening, it’s fair to say it’s become something of a sensation. The Brighton run stars Joe Absolom, Charlene Boyd, Nathaniel Curtis and Louisa Lytton as the two couples whose fractious dinner party becomes an investigation into the supernatural. It’s an entertaining, attention-grabbing play that ponders the existence of ghosts whilst laying bare the fragile psychological states of the characters.
The action takes place in the half-decorated new home of bickering couple, Sam (Curtis) and Jenny (Lytton). The set design is impressive, with the house’s interior reaching up to the lofty ceiling of the theatre, like a stretched regency townhouse. Sam’s old friend, Lauren (Boyd) comes round for dinner with her new man Ben (Absolom), a builder, whose earthy over-confidence quickly begins to infuriate Sam, a floppy-haired physics professor man-child. Jenny is also on edge, but for another reason: she reveals that the house is haunted and she has seen a ghost and it’s been returning at 2:22 every morning.
They all agree to stay up until 2:22 to see what happens. A digital clock on the wall displaying the current time becomes a countdown to that ominous hour. It’s a neat way of keeping the tension building throughout the play, the minutes slowing to a crawl then whirring by in the scene changes to show the passage of time. As they wait, they all share their own experiences with the supernatural, apart from Sam who remains stubbornly scientific, insisting ghosts are merely imagined as part of a stress response to a heightened state of fear.
In fact, the play itself feels like a sustained attempt to put the audience into such a state. The scene changes are punctuated with slightly obnoxious jump scare screams and a darkened stage outlined in a blood-red light, followed by pounding trip hop. Foreboding music swells back periodically and the sounds of suburbia become startling: foxes screeching in the street, a phone going off, a security light coming on outside. Further unease comes from the disembodied presence of Sam and Jenny’s baby, who is made known mostly through the medium of a baby monitor. All the ingredients are there for a series of spooky occurrences and theatrical tricks but the presence of the supernatural stays mostly in the realm of suggestion and discussion.
The domestic setting is a detailed, accurate vision of a middle class 2023 home, with an all-seeing Alexa speaker as auxiliary character and comic relief. Tensions of the class kind creep in as salt-of-the-earth Ben clashes with the uppity Sam and Jenny who represent gentrification and a loss of history, while Sam takes issue with Ben’s casual racism. Through emotional and increasingly drunk conversations the characters are given depth. We feel like we know a lot about them all by the end, and this is a strength of the script. Sam is perhaps the least fleshed out character. He remains a smug, entitled buffoon, always saying the insensitive thing, the self-appointed representative of scientific rigour.
As tempers flare and truths from the past are revealed, we’re standing on the precipice of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf level fallout but the tendency is often towards a lighter feeling of farce. The actors excel in these comic moments, whereas some of the more dramatic outbursts can feel less organic.
Those looking to have their bones truly tingled may leave this production feeling slightly disappointed. Whilst the restrained direction throughout gives room for ideas to breathe, there were many missed opportunities for some good ol’ spookiness (why not get Alexa involved?). And of course it’s all building towards the surprise of what is going to happen when the clock strikes 2:22. It would be a big spoiler to reveal what happens, but even if you leave feeling (as I did) like the ending raises more questions than it answers, the thing as a whole is plenty fun enough to forgive.
Runs until 28 October 2023