Charlotte Jones emerged as a playwright in the 1990s. Her plays In Flame and Humble Boy (the latter first performed at the National Theatre) both transferred to West End theatres. (Alas, she also wrote the book for that waste of time and space, the Lloyd Webber musical The Woman in White.) She has a talent for creating touching, funny, domestic, Ayckbournian situations with dark intimations of suppressed grief. The Lightning Play is along those lines. It starts out as a lifestyle comedy about Max and Harriet Villiers but, as it proceeds, we find that both their marriage and their lives are dysfunctional. In Act One, we see mainly that he is obsessed by thoughts of his daughter Anna (now adult, currently in Israel): images of her as a girl keep appearing on the TV screen to him, but to him alone, like Banquo’s ghost. Only in Act Two do we discover just how badly his career and Harriet’s life are both coming unstuck; and finally the main, long-buried source of their grief emerges near the end.
Jones doesn’t lose her sense of the absurd. The two most vivid characters here, Jacklyn and Imogen, are both outspoken, Ayckbournian women who find themselves visiting this troubled household, and both have gifts for saying the wrong thing. (Jacklyn, panicking: “I’m 39 and pre-menopausal. I don’t have time for all this.”) Anna Mackmin, an increasingly impressive director, integrates all this well. She and her designer Lez Brotherston, who plays Eddie), improve on Jones’s written ending with a scenic effect both spectacular and psychological. All the performances are good, and Matthew Marsh (Max), Eleanor David (Harriet), Adie Allen (Jacklyn), and Katherine Parkinson (Imogen) are better than good.
But the basic plot is awkwardly constructed. The part that Max’s friend Eddie plays in the action is at all points tenuous and unconvincing, and there are too many unprepared revelations in the big final scene. Jones exposes the pathos of Max and Harriet without engaging us in it.
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