Brighton Year-Round 2023
A ghost told me it’s better now than in the West End. Sharp, satisfying in itself, above all hauntingly intelligent in its questions.
Directed by Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr, Set Design Anna Fleischle, Costume Designer Cindy Lin, Lighting Designer Lucy Carter, Sound Design Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Casting Matilda James CDG, Illusions Chris Fisher, Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of RC-Annie, Vocal Coach Hazel Holder, Production Manager Matt Ledbury
Performance Management Runaway Entertainment Associate Director Robyn Grant, Performance marketing Sine Digital, Graphic Design Muse Creative, Press Bread and Butter PR, Marketing Saes and Ticketing EMG
Stage Management Christopher Davenport, Ronan Douse, Craig Lawson, Leonie MacDonald, David McEvoy, Lizzie Patrick, Jay Shewry, Hannah Tighe.
Till October 28th
Danny Robins’ 2:22 A Ghost Story comes trailing with ectoplasm from the West End. Though don’t expect quite that in this tight, always stimulating evening directed by Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr at Theatre Royal Brighton till 28th, when it continues on tour.
Robins is intrigued by belief and disbelief; he freights his four-hander accordingly. It’s a witty dialogue-rich script, clean and prone to one-liners such as “Of course she believes in ghosts. She’s a Catholic.” And “Ghosts don’t like electricity. Like the Armesh.”
You can tell straight off this is a smart savvy work that expects us to get those references and laugh. And in Brighton no cast can be disappointed.
Thus new home owners, still uncertain of their possession, continually find themselves testing each other. Rational science lecturer Sam (Nathaniel Curtis) is repeatedly telling his ex-Catholic wife (whom you might say he’s groomed to atheism) Jenny (Louisa Lytton) not to worry that they’ve stripped out the home-made furniture that late Frank lovingly bestowed on the house they’ve bought. Baby Phoebe gurgles on a monitor upstairs. Sam’s prone to stripping out, burning, laying waste the old.
Their university psychologist friend Lauren (Charlene Boyd) arrives with surprising new boyfriend Ben (Joe Absolom) in tow.
There’s a reason Lauren’s chosen men not remotely worthy of her, doesn’t tangle with the nearly-right ones; we find out why only late on. The three friends have history. Ben, a working-class builder who grew up in this area, is more sensitive to the nouveau-riche stripping out than you might think. And he’s sensitive altogether. We find out why he was exorcised at three. He certainly believes Jenny and her experiences of what goes on with 2:22, with Jenny’s offstage mother as witness. But as Sam says, she’s a Catholic.
Tension between the couples, between the three friends and a surprising reveal when the newcomers are alone, allow a certain richness. These people are recognizably individual. Not deeply-drawn but with enough backstory to allow other readings, other blind alleys.
The script allows three characters to narrate their own tales. A little like Conor McPherson’s masterpiece The Weir. But this is different. The stories have their own history of telling, particularly Lauren’s; the plot’s skilful enough to take us into many indirections. The end genuinely is a surprise.
Anna Fleischle’s set of an eviscerated glass-patio’d kitchen replete with digital clock and working surfaces (just how many you’ll find out) is a strong solid presence. Lucy Carter’s lighting is the most prominent with its red surround flicking on to Ian Dickinson’s scream sound.
The need to consistently add screams to the red-out (it’s a lighting design like many now taking its cue from Miriam Beuther’s white one, used for instance in The Father) seems one indirection too many. Screeches seem unnecessary even if they do alternate with foxes mating, lights flashing on.
And why do the outside doors not open from the outside? And when Lauren tells Jenny fear is so powerful it overcomes love, and Jenny says she’d never leave Phoebe behind, why do you worry?
The ensemble’s strength is led by Absolom’s layered Ben. His resentment at being patronised by Lauren and her smart friends has answers they may wish to attend. His relation of how he was indued with 1940s songs with all the inflections has a genuine reach; and his aria of regret over the eviscerating professionals who suck out each house in his old neighbourhood carries a true charge.
Boyd brings something near this in her relation of a childhood friend and parakeets, and in her longing. She does display with exchanges with Curtis a little unearned vehemence that we need to feel more before we can hear it. Otherwise she peels a melancholy tinged with desperation at one point that tells you all you need to know.
So why aren’t there most ghosts haunting the oncology units? And this assertion that most ghosts haunt their homes when they died elsewhere is surely rubbish. Quite a few theories are advanced. Robins has thought through answers and supplies his own uncertainty. Jenny’s point, that the stars Sam exalts are messengers of their own afterlife, long after their extinction, is a clincher Sam can’t evade.
Curtis has the unenviable job of appearing always smart, petulant, like some M R James professor riding to a fall. And you expect it. But. Lytton manages a quiet and then earned desperation, always anchored to her child, the one who after all demands a vigil. Her recrudescent Catholicism triumphs over Sam’s imposed star-void.
Boyd’s progressively drunken Lauren is meant to get louder, though she is from the first. And the deft overlapping writing tends to get used by Curtis’ over-confident Sam and sometimes Lytton with Jenny’s fright or outrage, to chime in: so all three simply raise decibels. Absolom mostly avoids this, brings welcome vocal chill.
And what of actors Natalie Boakye and Grant Kilburn? You might not see this coming. An excellent night out. A ghost told me it’s better now than in the West End. Sharp, satisfying in itself, above all hauntingly intelligent in its questions.