It was certainly lucky – and indeed, serendipitous – that the smart, tense and surprisingly funny 2:22: A Ghost Story had its gala night on Friday 13th. The superstitions only complement a brilliantly multi-layered story which questions how and what we believe, before making us want to come back and watch it again.
Penned by The Battersea Poltergeist writer Danny Robins, the two-hour play follows a spooked Jenny (Doctor Who‘s Mandip Gill) who’s experienced a series of supernatural events at 2:22 in the morning. Entertaining old friends Lauren (video game actress Beatriz Romilly) and Ben (Fisherman’s Friends‘ Sam Swainsbury), she convinces them – and her sceptical husband Sam (Tom Felton of Harry Potter) – to stay up until the aforementioned, ungodly hour to see what the fuss is all about.
The tension is established at the outset. The red and black digital clock above the kitchen door moves forward at a rapid pace before curtain up, at which point it is just moments away from 2:22. It teases us. It knows that we know that something scary is supposed to happen at that time, and after the longest minute ever, it still catches us off-guard. Some scares, granted, are a tad tedious and repetitive (the same scream and bright lights accompany every scene change, and you’ll come to hate foxes by the end of the play), but the constant anticipation is enthralling. With so few moments to pause amid fast-moving dialogue (a wise move from A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter director Matthew Dunster), we are constantly on-edge as we try to follow the relentless pacing.
At the same time, Jenny has no one to help her make sense of it all (her husband is instead highly scientific about the paranormal phenomena and sticks to mansplaining them instead), and thus we watch her rapid descent into frustration and delirium – one so delicately handled by Gill. It may well be billed as a ghost story, but 2:22 is also an electric piece of drama – not only exploring belief in the supernatural, but the issue of someone not believing in you. Are these characters of sound mind for leaning into the inexplicable?
So detailed is the dialogue on the psychology and science of the paranormal that Robins’ level of research into the phenomena is rich and exceptional – to the extent it is actually educational about the science of fear and perception (it gets away with this well through Sam’s obsession with science). Rarely have I come across commentary on ghosts which engages with how and why they may pass through into our world in such detail. Meanwhile, faulty Alexas and eerie baby monitors – the latter often at the centre of unexplained supernatural events – demonstrate Robins has a clear passion for the genre.
Equally impressive is set designer Anna Fleischle’s attention to detail – a Rorschach ink blot painting pinned to the fridge is a clever Easter egg for a play all about the human psyche.
Yet there are a few shortcomings in this otherwise astonishing production. Romilly makes a disappointing West End debut as Lauren, an individual who is mostly there to get drunk and offer comic relief. It’s sloppy writing on Robins’ part, more than anything, but the actress responds with false and exaggerated disbelief whenever Jenny recounts any paranormal experiences.
It may have been more cutting if it was from a place of sarcasm or thinly veiled animosity, and while there is indeed tension over repressed feelings between characters, there’s little depth to Lauren beyond her desire to get “s***-faced”. As the play goes on and we near ever closer to 2:22, the cliché character type is as tired as Lauren herself.
A lot of the comedy instead lies in the male characters, Sam and Ben – both of whom are hilariously plagued with the desperation to make a good impression but ends up saying something to the contrary. Ben, with his interest in past lives, brags about the wonders of Jenny’s toilet and asks for a “bit more” food. It’s that silly and awkward feeling that by trying too hard to be genuinely complimentary, one ends up doing the opposite.
The same goes for Felton’s Sam, but in a far more intriguing fashion. His outstretched arms and gesticulations, alongside his constant debunking of the supernatural, doesn’t suggest he’s trying hard to impress (at least, not primarily), but rather looking to mask his cognitive dissonance as the strange goings-on become harder and harder to disprove. It’s actually amusing to watch as the smug mansplainer with a slight superiority complex regularly gets put in his place.
Although Sam may be outnumbered in his more logical view of the night’s events, Robins still leaves the play open to interpretation from audiences. Like the friends on stage, we can choose exactly what we want to believe, and decide how much we will allow the ‘ghosts’ to “fill in the gaps”. But what is perhaps the most magical element of this play – and magic is, by the way, often associated with the supposedly supernatural – is the ending which challenges what you thought you knew, right after the production was already doing that in the first place.
So rare is it in a play that you unlock more of the story long after you’ve left the auditorium, but 2:22: A Ghost Story pulls off the feat here, and moments on the journey home when more of the play unravels is nothing short of euphoric. This is truly masterful theatre.
2:22: A Ghost Story is now playing at the Criterion Theatre until 4 September.
A British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance will take place on 30 June, with an audio described performance on 9 July and a captioned performance on 21 July.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘2:22: A Ghost Story’ for free in exchange for a review of the gala performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.