'2:22 - A Ghost Story' review — Cheryl triumphs in her West End debut

Read our four-star review of Cheryl in 2:22 - A Ghost Story at the Lyric Theatre. The play runs in the West End through spring 2023.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

What’s in a name? Quite a lot when it comes to the single moniker Cheryl, aka Cheryl Tweedy, the onetime Girls Aloud pop star who has braved the spooky environs of 2:22 - A Ghost Story and emerged triumphant, in the process even helping transform the play itself – or, at least, my view of it.

Initial news that longtime tabloid darling was joining Danny Robins’s play raised eyebrows as the latest casting gambit for a production that has bounced around the West End over the last 18 months, acquiring various names along the way rather like a non-musical equivalent to the celebrity-centric revival of Chicago.

In fact, the performer’s open-faced tremulousness turns out to be ideally suited to Robins’s cunning weave of cacophonous foxes and domestic anxiety. Playing Jenny, a schoolteacher who is the fretful mum to a young child whose crying forms a crucial part of the play’s soundscape, Cheryl has the audience in her corner from the start.

Her natural beauty enhanced by some especially attractive costuming, Cheryl hears footsteps and wonders whether a ghost may, in fact, have broken the boiler. Small wonder in context that her first word happens to be a certain choice expletive that she lets fly with gale force.

The effect is to ramp up the multiple aspects of unease that inform both the writing and Matthew Dunster’s staging and that give the sound-and-light aspect to the production – a shade gimmicky-seeming the first time round – greater impact here. One is aware of scarier, unbidden ghosts from the subconscious that can come to haunt any relationship, and Louise Ford, as a bibulous dinner guest called Lauren who has a builder-boyfriend (Jake Wood, returning from the first cast) in tow, mines a very real distress of her own: the stakes this time out feel greater all round.

The play invites specific comparisons to The Exorcist only to dismiss them but I actually thought, unexpectedly, of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another anatomy of marital discord that has a spectral presence hanging over it in George and Martha’s much-discussed but unseen son.

And if you’ve already seen 2:22, as I have, it’s fun to see the way in which Robins sets up clues that prepare one for the denouement (pay attention, for instance, to Alexa), while finding a psychological basis for the scaremongering that Cheryl foregrounds in a beautifully achieved balance between bewilderment and rage.

Playing the know-all husband Sam whom the spiky Lauren derides as a “sarcastic bastard”, Scott Karim finds in the play’s resident rationalist a level of aggression that I didn’t locate in Hadley Fraser’s admirable performance in the first cast. And it’s giving nothing away to say that the play has an odd contemporary echo in the recent disappearance in California, while hiking, of the British actor Julian Sands that lends an unnerving resonance here.

Anna Fleischle’s expert set locates in design terms the aspirations of neurotic homeowners Cheryl and Sam in a play that puts gentrification under the spotlight, even as its fraying, peeling aspects are a visual correlative to the characters’ shredding nerves.

Is Cheryl on this evidence ready to play Hedda Gabler? I’m not sure about that, and one is aware at the start of the performer needing a scene or two to get a voice not trained for the legitimate theatre up to the level of projection that colleagues like Karim possess from the start. (Oddly, it’s Wood among the current foursome whose diction seems muddiest.)

But the casting directors have savvily noted a media-friendly presence who has more to show for herself than her CV has allowed to date. That Cheryl returns the faith invested in her constitutes a large-scale pleasure, as it was a small-scale one the other afternoon to note the large clock in the theatre foyer set permanently at 2:22.

Now if only the matinees could start at 2:22, you’d have some sort of ultimate fusion between form and content. No matter: The foxes have a field day throughout the play, and so, in a strong candidate for this still-young theatre year’s happiest surprise, does the audience.

2:22 - A Ghost Story is at the Lyric Theatre through 23 April. Book 2:22 - A Ghost Story tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Cheryl (Photo by Helen Murray)

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