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Review: Lyonesse (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


All eyes are once again on the Harold Pinter Theatre for exciting plays this year. Following the acclaimed runs of A Little Life and Dr Semmelweis earlier this year, the space is now hosting a major world premiere starring two heavyweight performers. Will Lyonesse be another hit for the theatre or would it see its star fade?

Lyonesse tells the story of reclusive actress Elaine as she plans to return to the spotlight. If that sounds like another big West End show, that’s where the similarities end – there are no Pussycat Dolls to be found here, I’m afraid. After disappearing in mysterious circumstances 30 years earlier, it is down to Kate, a young film executive, to get to the bottom of what happened and bring Elaine’s story to the public eye. In a world where women’s voices are often silenced, will the two ladies be able to tell their stories without being compromised?

Written by Penelope Skinner, Lyonesse draws on topics from recent years, most notably the “Me Too” movement. The characterisations of Elaine and Kate are wonderfully explored with a bit of mystery and a story open to interpretation, though the three supporting characters could have used a bit more exposition to stop them feeling so one-dimensional. Penelope’s writing is full of nuance and has no shortage of comic moments, more so in the first act with regular witty one-liners, including an ingenious one regarding theatre critics, which more than tickled the press night audience. Comparisons to the setting provide a brilliant metaphor for the story, with their own narrative risking being swept away as suddenly as Elaine’s house risks being. These seeds are planted, predominantly in the first act, always ticking away in your brain as you wonder the significance of these references. Throughout the course of the play, Penelope’s writing tackles tricky themes sensitively and sensationally, going as far as to offer up a balanced argument on it. This is cleverly done and works exceptionally well for the first part.

Where the writing falters somewhat is in its uneven approach to both acts. The first act was sensational from start to finish, laying the foundations for the themes and seemingly foreshadowing moments that may prove important in the shows climactic moments. The problem with that is it set an impossibly high bar the second act failed to reach. Without spoiling the events, as the action takes a turn, the tension builds and then dissipates immediately. With poorer pacing than the first act, it becomes a bit of a muddled mess feeling as though a few tweaks to the writing in this half are necessary. Lyonesse drops little nuggets of where you think the story may go as it reaches its climax, so it is disappointing that it ends on such an unsatisfying note. Though deliberately left vague, it lacks the impact necessary which felt frustrating given the immeasurable quality of the first half of the play.

One thing that can’t be faulted, however, are the performers themselves. Lily James gives a wonderful performance as Kate, displaying great versatility as her character embarks on a journey and changes throughout. Her innocence leading way to a more carefree nature was a joy to watch with Lily’s flawless portrayal exhilarating to witness. Sara Powell brings something new to the story with her turn as Chris. Though the character isn’t as fleshed out as I would like, Sara makes the most of the limited knowledge we have on the character to provide a standout performance. Doon Mackichan’s turn as Sue may feel like no more than an extended cameo but her brilliant characterisation makes it a memorable performance. It feels fitting that a story like Lyonesse is dominated by female performers with James Corrigan being the sole male performer as Greg. In extreme contrasting scenes, James gives a fantastic performance though the characters voice being amplified above the women does feel disappointing, given the supposed intent of the story.

The undoubted standout among the cast is Kristin Scott Thomas as Elaine. In a grand performance, she is consistently stunning as the character, dominating proceedings whenever she is on stage and demanding all eyes are on her. While her choices in the role always impress, it’s the scene where she reveals Elaine’s story in an extended performance monologue that really took my breath away. I can only liken it to America Ferrera’s phenomenal speech on female empowerment in the Barbie movie to describe the quality of this sequence. Phenomenally written by Penelope Skinner and expertly performed by Kristin Scott Thomas, it is one of the greatest feats of acting I have had the privilege of witnessing. The character of Elaine was described in her own reviews as “magnificent”, “spellbinding” and “a force of nature” – three terms that easily apply to Kristin’s knockout performance here.

Ian Rickson’s direction expertly navigates the action from Kate’s dull and lifeless workplace to Elaine’s magical kingdom. Through frequent blackouts, we are kept on edge as we wonder where the action will take us next with the novelty of these transition choices never growing tiresome. Georgia Lowe’s design wonderfully recreates Elaine’s home with some inspiring touches, made even more glorious from Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting. Sound proves an important factor in Lyonesse with Tingying Dong’s sound design creating an atmospheric setting and a few surprises along the way.

Penelope Skinner’s Lyonesse is incredible at best. Through multilayered and complex writing which leaves you questioning the reality at times, it is a thought-provoking and powerful look at the silencing of women. It is a shame then that the action takes such a disappointing turn in the second act which feels counter-productive to the message I thought this play was trying to get across. Whether that was a deliberate choice or a misjudged decision that didn’t land with me personally remains to be seen. However, it is not enough to detract from the greatest qualities of this show. Add in the factors of the truly exemplary cast, led by a winning performance from Kristin Scott Thomas and Lyonesse becomes one of the most exciting plays of the year. Though it may not be completely perfect yet, it comes pretty close and is a great example of the art of storytelling and proving why nobody’s voice should be silenced.

Lyonesse plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 23rd December. Tickets available here.

Photos by Manuel Harlan


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