Here’s a story then. A young couple (Lily Allen and Hadley Fraser) and their baby daughter have recently moved into a new house. Like typical, callous middle class gentrifiers, they’ve thrown out the furniture and stripped the wallpaper and put in a kitchen island. It’s all glass everywhere now. Fragile, translucent.
So, the husband, Sam, goes away for a week, and while he’s gone the wife, Jenny, starts hearing noises in the baby’s room. Muffled sobs and ghostly footsteps pacing round and round the cot. And the thing is, it happens at the same time every night. Deep into the dark hours, at 2:22. Now, she was raised Catholic, so she knows evil exists. But he’s a scientist, you see. And in his nice new home, with its stainless steel and its Alexa-operated light fittings, there’s no room for ghosts.
Except, on the night he returns from his research trip, they have guests round for dinner: Sam’s best friend from university, Lauren, and her boyfriend, Ben, who grew up in the area before smug, fancy types like Sam moved in. Risotto and tensions simmer. They start drinking and don’t stop. Paranoia grows. The foxes scream in the garden. And maybe Sam can be persuaded to believe in ghosts after all, as the clock ticks towards 2:22…
2:22 is actually more of a dinner party play than a horror story. It’s not gory, and the jump scares tend to deflate comically soon after. It’s almost more engaged with the social awkwardness that arises from disagreement than with things that go bump in the night. The play worries at the bigger question of how to bridge the divide between sceptics and believers. Danny Robins’s script is perfectly competent: the characters all have Hidden Motivations, their dialogue is sharp and lively, the jokes are pretty funny. When 2:22 tries to bring in a higher-brow political dimension, though – for example, with a badly-handled comparison between ghosts and refugees – it feels a bit cringily try-hard. It’s most fun when it leans into spookiness.
Matthew Dunster’s production feeds gleefully on the tropes of both genres. The ‘one room over the course of one night’ element is handled with energetic wit: the actors ping and clatter from sofa to table to sink. Then scene breaks are marked by a sudden bloodcurdling shriek as the stage slams to black and a red neon square of light frames the darkness. It’s completely inappropriately overblown, properly stupid, as a bookend to scenes in which the characters have mostly just been bickering about asparagus or thermostats. Most of the audience shits themselves every time. It’s a good dumb joke.
In Anna Fleischle’s clever set, the familiar trappings of a gentrified London kitchen in a terraced Victorian house – skylights, exposed brick – start to look like its weak spots, its soft underbelly. Working in tandem with Lucy Carter’s lighting, the set repeatedly gestures at the ordinary ghosts that surround us: shadows on the walls, reflections in the glass. Upstage, the motion-sensor patio lights flick on and off unnervingly. The uncanniness of technology is a neat audio-visual motif in the production: a baby monitor on the coffee table spurts and fuzzes with disembodied voices; Alexa responds with her eerily modulated ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.’
As Jenny, Lily Allen isn’t bad: she’s brittle and overwrought, and empathetic without being too sweet. That’s sort of as far as it goes, but still, she holds her own. Julia Chan as Lauren is a little deeper; she’s friendly, charming, dry, but there’s a hidden melancholy to her. (Spoiler: it’s because she’s been in love with Sam since they were students, and she wanted to have a baby with him. You can tell because she looks sadly at a picture of the baby when no-one else is in the room.) Both of the women’s parts are quite bad, to be honest. I’m not sure anyone could have done much better than Allen with Jenny, for example, who at one point has to tell a horrifying story about how she fell in love with Sam as he romantically mansplained Chinese philosophy to her under a starlit Ugandan sky.
In fact, how both these women ever came to adore Sam as they do is probably the major mystery of the play. Hadley Fraser is extremely good at being immensely irritating, goading and needling the other three in an unbearably patronising tone. He particularly rubs Ben – played with triumphantly chaotic energy by Jake Wood – up the wrong way. Ben’s a local working-class builder, who met Lauren when he came to fit her bathroom, so he says things like, ‘Are you going to piss on my chips, mate?’ To which Sam replies, ‘Your pommes frites shall remain un-urinated upon.’ And yet somehow, somehow, the production is knowingly silly and self-aware enough – and Fraser as Sam is juuust charismatic enough, and Wood as Ben is juuust complex enough – that you can let this fly.
The final twist – the answer to whatever’s been happening at 2:22 each night – is, fair play, satisfyingly unexpected. I think it checks out, too; I almost want to go back and watch it again, to trace the clues, except I don’t really. The combination of schmoozy press night plus no social distancing in the auditorium plus an increasingly lightheaded silliness in the audience as the tension is cranked up throughout the second half meant I emerged into St Martin’s Lane feeling unsteadily relieved.
2:22 – A Ghost Story is on at Noel Coward Theatre until 16th October 2021. More info and tickets here.