2:22 A Ghost Story review, Noël Coward Theatre: Lily Allen makes an eerily good stage debut in tense horror

Pop star makes her West End debut with a thrilling performance (Helen Murray)
Pop star makes her West End debut with a thrilling performance (Helen Murray)

At a time when it’s hard to get bums on seats, some theatres have leant on the power of veteran actors – Ian McKellan, Ralph Fiennes – to draw crowds. The Noël Coward Theatre has gone a different way. Here, an expectant – and full – house has gathered to see a theatre noob. An acting novice. A Grammy winner. We’re waiting for Lily Allen, who makes her West End debut as the lead in 2:22 A Ghost Story from Danny Robins.

Allen opens the play on stage alone and, after about a minute or so of recognition (“ah, she’s still got the fringe”), the novelty wears off. Jenny (Allen) is a frantic and tired new mother, who believes there are ghosts in the big expensive house that she and her husband Sam (a wry, loathsome Hadley Fraser) have just bought. For the past four nights, at exactly 2:22am, she has heard footsteps circling her baby’s cot. To Sam’s embarrassment (he is a patronising, pragmatic mansplainer), the revelation comes out at a dinner party the couple are hosting for his old university pal Lauren (Julia Chan) and her new builder boyfriend Ben (Eastenders stalwart Jake Wood). Fuelled by wine, fear and a desire to prove the always-right Sam wrong, the foursome decide to stay up and see for themselves.

Allen is superb as Jenny. Exhaustion thrums a fraction below her palpable fear – just visible enough in her performance to have you questioning Jenny’s version of events. And while it may be Allen who everyone has come to see, she isn’t bearing the weight alone. Fraser embodies the role of his condescending character so fully that you come away hating him just a little. Meanwhile, Wood steals scenes as Ben, giving the comedic character punchlines that stick, as well as an unforeseen likeability. Chan – a Canadian actor also making her West End debut – confidently treads a delicate line in one of the more complicated parts.

The quartet benefit from Robins’s script, which is tight and layered. On-stage action waxes and wanes but the mounting sense of dread is relentless – ticked along by the red digital clock above the door counting down to the play’s very own witching hour. Robins – the creator of hit podcast The Battersea Poltergeist – is well-versed in what makes scary stories scarier, and uses that to brilliant effect here.

Less expected, though, is Robins’s adept writing of emotionally charged two-handers, which provide a useful toehold into the characters’ psychological universe. Likewise, the play’s set – designed by Anna Fleischle – lends itself wonderfully to metaphorical readings. A half-renovated house with wallpaper sloughing off the walls at one end and an Alexa perched on a marble kitchen island on the other becomes a natural home to conversations about identity, gentrification, love and life. Plus, the set’s dual aspect glass doors make for a good scare or two.

Much more than simply a successful first foray into theatre for one British singer, 2:22 stands on its own merits. Bar a handful of genuinely terrifying moments, it’s hardly The Exorcist, but maybe that’s for the best. There are enough scary things happening in the world right now to keep us up at night.

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