Photo credit: Julia Chan, Lily Allen, Hadley Fraser and Jake Wood in 2:22 A Ghost Story (Photo by Helen Murray)

Lily Allen makes an admirable stage debut in the scary and shouty '2:22: A Ghost Story'

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Lily Allen shrieks before she even says a word in 2:22: A Ghost Story, which tips you off immediately as to the way Danny Robins's debut West End play is due to proceed. But the name-grabbing debut on view is, of course, singer-songwriter Allen, who was due some years back to be penning a major musical of Bridget Jones's Diary from which she parted company along the way.

Instead, here Allen is, looking sleek and glam and very much forming part of the four-person ensemble that has been assembled by the director Matthew Dunster (of Hangmen renown, amongst other titles) in a putative scare-fest that is at heart the story of two couples in crisis. That shifting dynamic finds itself in thrall to numerous tropes of the genre - tricks of sound and light and sudden screams intended to elicit the same from the audience and which you'll either find nerve-shredding or cheesy, depending on your susceptibility to such things. To my mind, none of the jump-scare moments rival the frissons I recall from the comparatively undemanding likes of The Woman in Black, but 2:22 A Ghost Story to its credit has far more on its mind, including a meditation on the debilitating legacy of loss that stays with you long after the collective nervous laughter from the crowd has ceased.

Allen knows her way around a stage and is part of an acting family, so it's not much of a surprise that this isn't the deer-in-the-headlights moment some might have feared. (Madonna's Broadway and London stage runs, both of which I saw, have been cited by way of comparison but aren't really relevant.) In fact, Dunster keeps the actor whooshing around designer Anna Fleischle's attractive set, as Allen's character, Jenny, tries to make sense of footsteps she has been hearing in baby daughter Phoebe's room at 2:22 across successive mornings. (Quite why they don't simply bring Phoebe downstairs until the very final scene, rather than leaving her so long unattended, is left unanswered.)

To try and make sense of this recurring conundrum, Jenny has enlisted over risotto and quite a lot of wine an assist from her sceptical, hyper-rationalist husband Sam (Hadley Fraser, the musicals veteran in expert form) along with Sam's longtime American psychoanalyst chum Lauren (Julia Chan) and her builder-boyfriend, Ben, who showed up to do Lauren's bathroom and evidently never left. That role seems intended as comic relief and is rather belligerently played as such by Jake Wood until such time as the character darkens and all bets are off. At one bizarre moment, Ben ends up in spiritualist mode rather like an EastEnders equivalent of Blithe Spirit's Madame Arcati.

Robins commendably has plenty on his mind, in marked contrast with usual shows of this kind: you don't expect societal commentary, for instance, from Deathtrap. But I'm not sure it's in the best of taste to compare ghosts to refugees, given the very real suffering experienced by the latter, and some of the angst is very clunkily expressed: "I want to be more than just a sponge," Jenny protests well into the second act, around the same time that we get the cod-philosophical "life is pointless and life is final." Elsewhere, Julia responds to the rising tensions by proffering herself as "Switzerland" in human form - evidence of a script that gathers humour into its fearful embrace.

The evening is on stronger ground layering the strangeness on view in a stylish home whose skylight is singled out as a thing of beauty and whose sliding door seems to give way to a landscape of foxes whose piercing night cries (indices of copulation, we are told) are used several times to fearmongering effect. Add to all this a dodgy boiler, windows that seem mysteriously to open, and the unexplained presence of white spirit in the sink, and it's no wonder that Jenny is soon striding about with a hammer when, that is, one or another character isn't heard demanding the impossible from a mobile phone. (Alexa is given enough of a workout to merit inclusion on the payroll.)

"This isn't The Exorcist," Sam maintains at one point, noting the absence of ectoplasm from an increasingly shouty narrative that wants to disturb on a human level well away from the familiar horror-landscape theatrics. (The film Ghost gets its own name check.) There's plenty said about the trauma of childbearing and class and marital tensions, not to mention the primacy in our psyche that is granted to fear over love, to command attention well before the sounds of thunder arrive seemingly on cue. If 2 22: A Ghost Story is remembered as the play that posited Lily Allen as a viable theatrical presence, its primary debt is owed less to the likes of, say, Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories than to the eternal challenge, at times truly fearful, that most of us will recognise inherent in simply being alive.

2: 22 A Ghost Story is at the Noel Coward Theatre to 16 October.

Photo credit: Julia Chan, Lily Allen, Hadley Fraser and Jake Wood in 2:22 A Ghost Story (Photo by Helen Murray)

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