2:22: A Ghost Story review – Lily Allen gives you chills in slick, clever horror
Noël Coward theatre, London
The pop star makes her West End debut in a contemporary haunted-house chiller that smartly plays with all the old tropes and leaves the room electric with fear
Fingernails dig into skin as we watch a neon red digital clock climb through the night. With a brilliant sense of mounting dread and just the right number of jump-scares, Danny Robins’ new ghost story is a slick, chilling romp of a play.
Jenny (Lily Allen) is convinced the big new house she and her husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) have bought – a beautiful naturalistic set by Anna Fleischle – is haunted. Every night, she hears footsteps around her baby’s room at exactly the same time: 2:22am. She insists the sound is real while Sam infuriatingly tries to explain it all away. When the pair throw a dinner party for Sam’s old friend Lauren (Julia Chan) and her new man Ben (EastEnders’ Jake Wood), the four of them decide to wait up to see who’s right.
You wouldn’t know this is Allen’s first time acting in the West End. She is strong as the frantic, afraid and exhausted Jen, though the constant paranoia of her part leans towards feeling strained. Director Matthew Dunster has her constantly moving – tidying, cooking, pacing – though it’s in her moments of stillness that the fear best finds its way in.
Together, the cast are gleaming. Fraser’s Sam is so realistic it’s hard to believe he’s acting. Wood’s part is written more broadly – Ben is primarily there to challenge Sam – but he revels in it, drawing out the humour and diving into the mysticism. Chan does a brilliant balancing act, shifting Lauren’s loyalties throughout the night.
Robins’ script is sharp, quick, and cleverly layered with clues. While his handling of horror is nothing new, it’s done smartly, toying with the tropes. In one of the most chilling scenes, absolutely nothing happens yet the grand old room is electric with the fear of expectation. There’s an overuse of deafening fox screams, and the arguments occasionally escalate into one-note yelling, but neither of these things do much to detract from the steadily growing tension. All the while, the red clock glares at us, ticking closer to 2:22.
This show is not scary enough to cause nightmares, nor is it gruesome or graphic or gory; it’s more human than the creepiest horror movies. But there are genuinely chilling moments, scary enough that the whole theatre is tense and pin-drop quiet. Scary enough that sections of the play have a beat afterwards for the audience to catch their breath. Scary enough, perhaps, to have you turn on the light the next time you hear an unusual sound at night, just to check the time.
At the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 16 October.