There are times in the theatre when I sense that the actors don't quite believe in the play. They give it a hundred per cent in terms of effort, but somehow there's a gulf between the actors and the parts they are playing, a lack of real conviction. If the actors don't believe in what they're doing, they're not likely to make the audience believe either. That's rather what I felt when I saw Conor Macpherson's The Seafarer at the National a few weeks ago.
When the writer and the director can get the actors to commit themselves totally, on the other hand, the results can be electrifying. That's what I felt about The Lightning Play by Charlotte Jones at the Almeida. Jones is the author of Humble Boy, which won prizes at the National three or four years ago and had some heavy hitters in the cast -- Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg, who was replaced by Felicity Kendal. The Lightning Play doesn't have any starry names, but the cast of eight are just brilliant. The play is very funny and very dark. Considering how few good new comedies there are in the West End, this one should find a transfer immediately. Some reviewers find Jones's writing a touch derivative, and there are certainly echoes of other dramatists in her work, but I prefer to think that she's just absorbed a lot of good lessons. It's a play I would love to have written myself. There are moments of verbal wit that recall Stoppard, of painful embarrassment that recall Mike Leigh, and of savage grief and cruelty that recall Albee.
Max Villiers (Matthew Marsh) is a successful ghostwriter of celebrity autobiographies while his wife Harriet (Eleanor David) is a compulsive shopper. Their stylish North London home (not a million miles from the world of the Almeida's audience) has a brand new plasma screen television that Max just can't get to work. It's Halloween and an ill-assorted group of four guests join Max and Harriet for the evening. Now this kind of setup is rather commonplace, and has been used in plays as diverse as Abigail's Party and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Cue alcohol-fuelled truth-telling and the revelation of awkward secrets. But Jones gives it all a fresh twist because her characters are so beautifully crafted and their interaction generates the comedy. We sense early on that something is badly wrong when every time the doorbell is rung by trick-or-treating children, Max sees strange images of a girl in a forest flashing across the plasma screen. It's elegantly done, and director Anna Mackmin doesn't labour the point that the other characters don't see the images. As the play progresses we learn the depths of the tragedy and grief that lie behind the empty marriage. Max and Harriet are estranged from their daughter Anna, who is somewhere in the Palestinian West Bank defying Israeli tanks. Initially it's the four guests who appear to be the victims -- Max's hapless friend Eddie (Lloyd Hutchinson) , his loopy new-age girlfriend Jack (Adie Allen), and the young married couple Imogen (Katherine Parkinson) and Marcus (Orlando Seale). All four have their moments of panic and despair as the evening unfolds, but it's Max and Harriet who suffer most. The excellent cast also includes two cameo roles -- Simon Kassianides as a Turkish carpet dealer and Christina Cole as a Page Three girl. They too are faultless.
One more observation: this is the first and only time that I've seen a TV screen being used for a real dramatic purpose in a theatre. Well done to director Anna Mackmin and designer Lez Brotherston. In a year where there haven't been that many good new plays in London, this one is in my top three.