'Lyonesse' review – Kristin Scott Thomas is riveting as the eccentric actress reclaiming her story
Read our three-star review of Lyonesse, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, in performances at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 23 December.
A key aspect of movements like MeToo is narrative. Who has power not just over other people, but in how the story is told? Social media has been a democratising force: anyone can speak up, and their voice can be heard. But making systemic change isn’t nearly as easy, and there’s still the terrible – and very legitimate – fear that you won’t be believed.
That thorny issue is at the heart of Penelope Skinner’s new play Lyonesse, her West End debut. A brilliant actress, Elaine, mysteriously disappeared 30 years ago, and has now resurfaced in a remote part of Cornwall. She wants film company Lilith to help tell the story of how she escaped an abusive partner, and development executive Kate has come to negotiate terms – but will the “truth” survive this process?
The eccentric and reclusive Elaine, a sort of modern-day Norma Desmond, is a juicy role, and Kristin Scott Thomas is riveting in it. A keen sea swimmer, we first see Elaine wearing a fur coat over her swimsuit, plus wellies, cap and goggles. Oh, and she’s holding an axe.
She initially wanted to make her comeback with a “one-woman theatrical extravaganza” – and, happily, we get to see some of that, with Scott Thomas in a blonde wig intoning her tale into a microphone. It’s skin-crawling: when she rebelled against her obsessive partner by doing a play, instead of just being in his movies, he stalked her, threatened her, and finally broke into her flat and murdered her beloved pets.
That explains the giant cage of stuffed birds in this haunted house (evocative gothic design by Georgia Lowe). Kate is sold: not just on the project, but on the liberation that Elaine represents. She admits how miserable she is with her seemingly perfect life: her husband (another film director) values his career over hers, expects her to do all the domestic duties, and demands another baby, even though she nearly died giving birth.
There’s so much to explore here, but neither Skinner nor director Ian Rickson ever settle on a consistent tone. Lyonesse has some good moments of satire – mainly via the always-excellent Doon Mackichan as morally bankrupt film boss Sue – and even a strange slapstick sequence involving spilled tea and a fire. It also teases a lesbian romance between Kate and Elaine’s poet neighbour Chris (warmly inhabited by Sara Powell).
But it doesn’t have a secure foundation for a drama involving such sensitive issues because the characters don’t ring true. Kate is absurdly naïve and weak-willed for a thirtysomething media exec, and almost a caricature of “a woman trying to have it all” (Lily James, who lacks range and theatrical projection, also makes her irritatingly whiny).
Basically all of the men are monsters, including the only one we actually meet, Kate’s ghastly husband Greg. He’s such a cartoon baddie that when someone suggests tipping him over a cliff, I nearly cheered. But in reality, surely such coercively controlling men are subtler, more dangerous, more insidious in their methods.
The title refers to mythical lost kingdom in Cornwall buried beneath the sea. It suggests a more surreal, dreamlike form of this tale that might well be compelling, should Skinner lean into it. I could also see the satirical version (if ruthlessly condensed) being turned into a dark sitcom pilot. But this current hybrid still feels like a story in search of its ideal form.
Photo credit: Lyonesse (Photo by Manuel Harlan)
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