Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James star in tricky new play Lyonesse at Harold Pinter Theatre
“What if I am no longer spellbinding?”
On the one hand, it is great to see new writing being launched straight into the West End. On the other, it can be a real risk bringing such attention to untested material. Penelope Skinner’s new play Lyonesse straddles both of these as the lustre of a star-heavy cast including Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James can’t quite gild over a wildly inconsistent tone which ricochets from farce to fable, from classic tragedy to topical drama, without satisfyingly delivering on any.
Feted actress Elaine disappeared from the scene overnight after a West End opening night 30 years ago and having resurfaced in deepest Cornwall, has decided that now is the time to tell her truth. This she wants to do in a #MeToo-inflected film and as she engages film company Lilith, they send junior exec Kate to see if there’s a deal to be made. And away from the pressures of metropolitan motherhood and marriage, Kate becomes entirely seduced.
It’s a world full of potential but none of it really lands. Scott Thomas is richly fruity as the recluse dipping her toe back into the water but it is hard to tell exactly what we’re meant to take from the level of her eccentric behaviour. And James struggles with the impossible contradictions of a character who is scarcely believable as a professional and increasingly whiny as her personal situation becomes more tangled – a frisson with Elaine’s neighbour Chris (Sara Powell) relieving some of the pressure of her cartoon-villain-of-a-husband Greg (James Corrigan).
If the play leant harder into one of its modes, you could see it succeeding much more. But as it is, so fatally unfocused, the hints of mythological strangeness clash hard against the sensitive real-world issues which it seeks to evoke and its scatty nature proves highly frustrating. Doon Mackichan’s film boss is a rare highlight with her biting hypocrisy but this is three long hours for little real reward.