Review: Ghost Story, Riverside Studios

“I don’t want to be an ill person any more”

The second play in the Sky Arts Playhouse: Live project is Ghost Story, written and directed by Mark Ravenhill and featuring an amazing cast of Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville and Lyndsey Marshal. Stevenson plays Lisa, a breast cancer sufferer who has come to visit Meryl (Manville), a healer who believes in the curative power of positive thought. Then, as the programme says “as time folds back on itself, Lisa and Meryl cross the line between the healer and the healed and discover that the world is full of ghosts”.

On one level, this is a satire on the doctrine of positive thinking, questioning how real or effective it could possibly be in the fight against terminal illness, posing serious questions but also playing it for laughs, the scene in which Lisa is encouraged to draw what her cancer looks like on the wall of the apartment is brilliant (I thought it looked like an evil frog) and wryly amusing (it then gains a penis, and pubic hair). It is also though a poignant account of people’s battles with illness, how it affects relationship with the self and the loved ones around us. It is particularly moving in the way it depicts the lies and half-truths we have to tell to protect others or even our own egos: all the characters obfuscate the truth at some point or other.

As cancer sufferer Lisa, Juliet Stevenson captures the fragility of the victim of a harsh disease, desperate to find any way out to recovery, but also plays beautifully the inner strength that this woman does not initially know she possesses, but soon comes to light once she begins to ‘work on herself’. Stevenson plays this journey with imperceptible changes, it is such a natural progression yet the woman who takes a seat at the end of the play is barely recognisable from the victim who we see at the beginning: a stunning performance.

Lesley Manville is also superb as Meryl, the healer to whom Lisa turns, seemingly something of a con-artist, full of cagey therapist double-speak and cognitive exercises. But her smooth exterior is soon ruffled as connections form between the two women and boundaries are crossed. Manville plays these questioning scenes with a heartbreaking intensity and her work in the latter half was unflinchingly brutal in its honesty. Lyndsey Marshal has quite the job in matching such incredible performers but she does well in portraying the needy Hannah, Meryl’s rather self-obsessed lover, not quite able to face up to the reality of any situation, another character tied up in overly reflective therapist speak.

Working within the box-like frame that has been set up for all the plays to be performed in (or so it seems), the action takes place in the living room of the healer. But as the show progresses and the planes that the characters inhabit shift, the space outside of the box is cleverly utilised. Chloe Lamford’s design is immeasurably helped by Will Charles’ lighting in subtly but clearly evoking these changing viewpoints, both in time and space.

Ghost Story is a strong piece of drama with an interesting take on the issues it raises, but it is truly elevated by powerhouse performances from two of the strongest actors working in the UK at the moment in Stevenson and Manville. The live previews for this have now finished, but I would strongly recommend trying to catch this on the television when it is broadcast on Sky Arts 2 at 9pm on Wednesday 16th June.

Running time: 45 minutes
Programme cost: free

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