Photo credit: The Glow (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

'The Glow' review — a pacy and mysterious thriller through time

Lizzie Akita
Lizzie Akita

Alistair McDowall's supernatural thriller, The Glow, centres on a woman who holds a mysterious glow. It's both ambitious and complex, while also confusing in parts, probably requiring more than one viewing to make sense of the matters that it grapples with.

The drama begins in 1863. A spiritual medium Mrs. Lyall (a wickedly cruel Rakie Ayola) collects a neglected woman from an asylum (Ria Zmitrowicz), using her to connect with other spiritual realms. Zmitrowicz is perfectly cast as the troubled and lost soul who doesn't eat nor sleep.

Mrs. Lyall's son, Mason (a brilliantly comic Fisayo Akinade) begrudgingly helps his mother, and a strange yet humorous disharmony persists between the trio. Mason is frustrated that he must tolerate this new stranger, attempting to assert his superiority over her, while Mrs. Lyall constantly undermines and belittles her son.

When Mrs. Lyall's first séance begins, the once quiet woman now writhes and screams as she successfully accesses spirits from another world. Tensions heighten as the woman grows increasingly violent and appears to have unlocked access to a strange power of her own.

Each scene then takes gigantic leaps through time where at least three distinct story arcs unfold and the nameless woman is present in each: in 1348, the woman is captured by a knight (a grisly Tadhg Murphy) after fleeing a society which hounded and tortured her yet failed to kill her; in 1979 the woman befriends Evan, a new wave historian; and in 1993 the woman is taken in by Ellen, a retired nurse. We follow the woman as she attempts to make sense of her surroundings at the same time that the audience does. Just when you begin to settle into one story, you're jolted to another period.

The cast of four deliver very satisfying performances in Vicky Featherstone's unnerving production. The exciting stage design nicely complements and never overpowers the storytelling — the result of a tight creative collaboration between designer Merle Hensel, lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun and video designer Tal Rosener.

In the initial Victorian setting, the dark and hollow stage is dimly lit by candlelight. But as the action starts to swell, all-encompassing projections are cast onto the walls so that the scene transforms to the varied destinations that the drama seeks to take you to — one moment you're submerged underwater, the next you're in the dark depths of a forest. 

The historian character provides the most helpful insight into this mystic woman. He explains that according to a controversial myth, there exists a woman who is captured in various pieces of art throughout history, and how she is depicted reflects the mood of the time.

With McDowall's fluid and expansive writing style, it's quite likely that audiences will have differing ideas about what the central conceit of the show is meant to be. I found myself drawn to the interesting reflections on how history remains in the present, and also observations on the brutal treatment of women throughout history.

Overall, it's a strange play. As there isn't one central question which pulls the drama together, a lot of the time you are left wondering what everything will lead up to. But thanks to the stellar performances, the piece is likely to engage you throughout, even if it leaves you with more questions than answers.

The Glow is at the Royal Court to 5 March. Book The Glow tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: The Glow (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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