Middle-class moral meltdown is, it seems, back in fashion. The lastpiece of new theatre writing I saw, Seduced at the Finborough,shared with this new play by the award-winning Charlotte Jones themes ofthe breakdown of moral certainties and the ennui of modern life. Jones’sghostly tragicomedy also weaves in the near-universal contemporaryobsession with the vulnerability of children in order to tug at theheart and deepen what would otherwise be a simple comedy of modernmanners.
Set in a present-day, minimalist house somewhere between well-to-doHampstead and Highgate, we enter the world of Max Villiers (MatthewMarsh), a ghost writer of semi-literate-celebrity autobiographies, andhis wife Harriet (Eleanor David), who has become obsessed with”beautiful things” such as the “semi-antique” rug she has bought. It isHalloween, and they are preparing for a drinks party they haveaccidentally organised by inviting Imogen (Katherine Parkinson), an oldfriend of their absent daughter, Anna, who is off being a peace activist”somewhere dangerous”. Expected also are proletarian family friend Eddie(Lloyd Hutchinson) and his New Age neurotic date, Jacklyn (Adie Allen),as well as Imogen’s po-faced civil servant husband Marcus (OrlandoSearle). However, before and during the party, Max is seeing mysteriousvisions of Anna as a ten-year old on the newly-installed plasma screenhe otherwise cannot turn on.
Blending broad comedy with spookiness, The Lightning Play is an easyand enjoyable watch which has a stunning first half and a slightlydisappointing second act. Jones has given us a piece which taps into arich vein of concern about the emptiness of an existence defined by whatyou possess because what you want or need is out of reach. Working onseveral levels, it deals with the longing for spirituality, thehopelessness of modern, batty alternatives to its absence, theuncertainty of all moral beliefs, and the difficulty of identity, allwithin the sugar-coated setting of what is basically a supernaturalversion of The Good Life 2006.
Great art should seek to tell the truth about its time, but shouldalso entertain. The Lightning Play is certainly one of the mostaccomplished examples of this maxim I have seen for a while. I wasgenuinely on the edge of my seat come the interval to find out what theghostly, Ring-like apparition of the Villiers’ absent daughtermeant and what further, Halloween-style eeriness lay ahead. That therest of the play turned into a drunken argument about morality, howeverinevitably, did rather take something away from the supernaturalambience the writer had so carefully created at the start.
It is entertaining all the same thanks to the depth of the writingand the strong performances. Special mention must be made of Searle’sstand-out study in humourlessness as the DEFRA drone, Marcus, andAllen’s great neurotic turn as the nutty Jacklyn. While strong actors,however, Marsh and David as the estranged marrieds are, sadly, too niceby half for us to believe in the frost that has settled between them.The brilliant design of the play, from the set to the filmed inserts,also deserves praise, being so central to the piece, while making itstransfer to less flexible spaces an interesting challenge for any futureartistic directors.
The Lightning Play gives up its dark secrets in carefully controlled,well written and plotted chunks that will make you laugh, tear andslightly shiver. However conventional its form, it is the witty details,the presentation and the handling of the strong themes that make thissuperior theatre.