2:22. It’s rarely encouraging to find audience members checking the time, but it’s part of the mastery to Danny Robbins’ electric new thriller as eyes dart expectantly to the giant digital clock that looms overhead. The crowds come for Lily Allen’s West End debut, but they stay to watch the numbers flash 2:22, witching hour in this modern take on the haunted house classic.
Jenny (Allen) is a woman on the edge. Alone and unable to contact husband Sam, she has spent four nights tormented by phantom footsteps circling her newborn’s cot. The apparition disappears each night without trace, only to return with frightful punctuality at the titular hour. Maddeningly, upon his return, Sam chalks up the ordeal to sleep deprivation and a ‘creepy baby’, insistent instead upon a rational explanation. Much to his dismay, Jenny’s superstitions find their way into conversation over dinner with an old friend Lauren (Julia Chan) and her new boyfriend Ben (Eastenders’ Jake Wood). To antagonise Sam as much as to console his wife, the guests resolve to stay up and witness the supernatural first-hand.
The five-hour standoff begins as comfortably as a double date could. Anna Fleischle’s stunning set is a Pinterest-perfect backdrop of domestic chic, complete with the airy skylights and glossy counters which builder Ben rants about fitting. Wine does nothing to calm simmering tensions as an ominous mist swirls on the patio. Before long, all social pretence is abandoned in favour of superstition, with crucifixes erected and baby Phoebe juggled from room to room like a hot potato. Director Matthew Dunster has the cast hopping by the finale, nervous energy manifest. That the frequent shrieks of mating foxes provide reliable jump scares is testament to an engaging set piece.
It’s a strong debut for Allen, who convinces as the petrified mother struggling with her identity in marriage. She verges on becoming too shrill too soon, though this is perhaps by direction, and the mental toll of four days’ isolation feels topical if nothing else. She and Chan drive the play’s intimate conversations, bringing light to the characters’ vulnerabilities and signposting the obvious love triangle. But it’s undeniably Wood and Fraser that steal the show – riffing brilliantly as the rival partners with nothing in common. The pair’s instant animosity, veiled paper-thin, colours their every interaction. Sam’s boasts about the kitchen Alexa butt up against Ben’s feelings on local gentrification; Ben’s increasingly fantastical musings on the occult are the perfect foil for Sam’s scepticism.
It’s at precisely 2:22, and no earlier, that most audience members realise they’ve been hoodwinked, and the curtain falls on stunned silence. It’s horror at its best: neither gruesome nor formulaic, but smart, suspense-driven and seriously chilling. I suspect it makes for rewarding second viewing, so grab a ticket before it’s snatched up by phoney chin-scratchers like me feigning clairvoyance at the re-run.
2:22: A Ghost Story is booking until 16 October 2021
To book tickets, visit: 222aghoststory.com
Imagery courtesy of 2:22: A Ghost Story
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