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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Lightning Play

I fear her breasts.
---- Max
The Lightning Play
Chris New as Horst and Alan Cumming as Max
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Charlotte Jones of Humble Boy fame premieres her latest play at London’s Almeida Theatre. Called The Lightning Play it is a study of family dysfunction. While I am not yet sure exactly what the main strike is all about, I can assure you that it is two hours of involving and at times electrifying theatre, written with a talent for acute observation.

Set on Hallowe’en, in Hampstead a fashionable neighbourhood of London, a middle class couple, he a ghost writer of celebrity autobiographies and she described by him as a "talented shopper", are visited by the ghosts of their unspoken past. When we hear that Harriet Villiers (Eleanor David) has acquired a valuable East Anatolian prayer mat (rug to the rest of us) that has withstood "sixty years of prayer, struggle and bloodshed" we know that something momentous has to happen to this ugly rug before the end of the play.

Max Villiers (Matthew Marsh) is trying to operate his new plasma screen television which refuses to act normally, but instead jerks into spasmodic action with video replays of his daughter Anna as a small girl hiding in trees on the heath. Eddie Fox (Lloyd Hutchinson) is an ex-Carthusian monk who lives with them occasionally, a kind of professional hanger on, someone who came to stay for a short time and never gave back the key, a laddish sidekick for Max. Their guests this Hallowe’en are a younger couple, the very pregnant, "hockey thighs" Imogen Cumberbatch (Katherine Parkinson) who was at school with Anna and her husband estate agent type Marcus (Orlando Seale). Completing the party is the wonderful New Age woman guru Jack (Adie Allen) who picked up Eddie in the park. We also meet Tabby Morris (Christina Cole) the glamour model whose “autobiography” Max is about to ghostwrite and Burak (Simon Kassianides) a lusty young Middle Eastern rug seller, each the sexual fantasy object for Max and Harriet.

The Lightning Play is very dependent on words and there are many fine comic one liners; for example, the Hallowe’en trick or treaters at the door who don’t want candy, "they want lattes and heroin." I liked Max’s sardonic, outrageous wit which is directed at everybody else but I wouldn’t want to be married to him! Max is sophisticated and full of clever witticisms but basically not likeable because he doesn’t like himself. The denoument at the end is an obvious allusion to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as one member of the Villiers marriage lays bare an unspoken secret against the pleading of the other.

Jack the Reiki healer and New Age exponent provides the most delightful scenes. I’m not sure what her purpose is in dramatic terms and of advancing the main plot but no matter, her revelations are pure quirkiness. I would like to see her with her own play. Her story of how she met her ex, Gonk, at an historical re-enactment event will make you laugh and laugh. From their first encounter at the Battle of Cropredy Bridge to the break up at the Siege of Guildford, her zany account is completely original.

Anna Macknmin gets ace performances from her cast so that this odd collection of characters contrast. Katherine Parkinson as Imogen uses that smokey, drawling delivery and candidly and indiscreetly talks about the Villiers absent daughter Anna. Adie Allen excels as the eccentric Jack and Eleanor David is very world weary as Harriet. I was impressed too by Mathew Marsh as Max, so successful on the surface and yet so shallow and we are left with a big question mark as to whether his relationship with the daughter he professes to love was abusive.

The set is a sitting room with vulgar designer padded white leather sofa chairs surrounding the brightly coloured rug. Max tells us that Harriet has surrounded him with “mountains of extraneous cushionage”. Behind the plasma screen tv is the trunk of a massive elm tree. The lighting designer has magnificent effects as lightning strikes throughout the play. In the final scene the furniture and walls are cast away as we find ourselves out in the woods in a storm with lightning striking as if we were "walking around the Equinoxes." Charlotte Jones has blended descriptions of the extremes of weather and natural phenomena with the artificiality of marriage, family life and society today in this intriguing play.

Written by Charlotte Jones
Directed by Anna Mackmin

Starring: Mathew Marsh, Eleanor David, Katherine Parkinson, Adie Allen
With: Lloyd Hutchinson, Simon Kassianides, Orlando Seale, Christina Cole
Design: Lex Brotherston
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Cinematography and Projection Design: Jon Driscoll
Running time: Two hours five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 6th January 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th November 2006 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Upper Street, Islington, London N1 (Tube: The Angel, Islington)
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