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Lyonesse at the Harold Pinter Theatre | Review

It’s half an hour too long. Don’t believe the programme that says it’s approximately two hours and fifteen minutes – it comes down around the same time as Les Misérables, and frankly feels longer than Les Mis. That show is also, believe it or not, less bleak than this one. Recalling the events of decades ago, retired actress Elaine Dailey (Kristin Scott Thomas) might well be perceived as an unreliable narrator, especially given the exaggerated dramatic effects she puts into the presentation of her story, the details of which ‘development executive’ Kate Trellis (Lily James) might or might not want to pitch to her boss Sue (Nicola Blackman at the performance I attended, understudying for Doon Mackichan, and on book – or, to be precise, on tablet), with a view to making a motion picture of her (Elaine’s) story.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Elaine) in Lyonesse at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Kristin Scott Thomas (Elaine) in Lyonesse at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Elaine’s previous acting experience was on stage rather than on screen, leaving her somewhat unaware of the ins and outs of the movie business. Her “one-woman theatrical extravaganza” sees her perform as a cross between Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard and Miss Havisham of Great Expectations. She signs, despite Kate’s encouragement to read through it, a contract with ‘Lilith Entertainment’, in haste. Whether she repents at leisure, so to speak, is unclear, along with so much else in this play. This is a pity, because it starts off reasonably well – having established Kate’s work life through an office meeting with Sue, and her home life in a scene with husband Greg (James Corrigan), the action shifts to Elaine’s house, which Elaine calls Lyonesse, for reasons explained in the narrative.

But even here, the first two scenes are made redundant by the third. Kate is meant to be finding out more about Elaine and her story, but Elaine gets to know her guest first, a device the audience also discovers more about Kate, as though we are also Elaine’s guests. Gradually, the play becomes so fragmented and unlikely that hardly anything that goes on in the second half feels credible. Perhaps the only believable person throughout is Chris (Sara Powell), a poet described as “Elaine’s neighbour” – neighbour, that is, by countryside standards, meaning a short drive away. The set (Georgia Lowe) portrays the various settings well, with a glitzy neon sign at the film production company’s office, and once the action shifts to Elaine’s Cornwall hideaway, the feel of a rundown house in serious need of repair and redecoration.

There are too many topics and themes explored, none of them in considerable depth. Some in the audience chortled heartily at the humour in the play, though some of it was too repetitive, such as Kate’s apologies, followed by more apologies… for apologising. Sigh. Elsewhere, the same conversation takes place more than once because a character wasn’t there the first time around: fair enough at face value, but what the creative team appears to have forgotten is that the audience doesn’t need to hear the same thing twice.

Your reviewer’s interest in this production was piqued by the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, and I suspect this is also true for others. Both their characters, however, seem to give up too easily, lurching abruptly from standing up for themselves to – well, not. In one scene, as Kate collected her belongings and started her journey home, I wanted to do the same. “I don’t know,” Kate almost whines, at least twice, under direct questioning from Greg, which to me summed up the indecisiveness and hesitance of the play as a whole.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a reclusive and talented actress, disappears in mysterious circumstances. 30 years later, she finally feels ready to tell her story – summoning Kate, a young film executive (Lily James), to her remote Cornish home to assist with her glorious comeback.

But who really controls the stories we tell, and how we get to tell them? Will these women own their narrative, or will it be swept away from them at any given moment?

A story for our times, playing for a strictly limited season from 17 October – 23 December at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Sonia Friedman Productions presents
Written by Penelope Skinner
Directed by Ian Rickson
Designed by Georgia Lowe
Lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun
Music by Stephen Warbeck
Sound by Tingying Dong
Casting by Amy Ball CDG
Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN
First performance: 17 October 2023
Final performance: 23 December 2023
Opening night: 25 October 2023

Lyonesse Tickets Harold Pinter Theatre

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