Penelope Skinner’s first play in an age is a sort of breezy homage to young-woman-finds-herself-style romcoms… that abruptly commits hari-kiri about three-quarters of the way through.
Kate (Lily James) is the underachieving ditz at Lilith, a nominally feminist-leaning film production company, led by Doon Mackichan’s sharklike Sue. At the outset, an apologetic Kate has arrived late to work, having only just escaped the demands of her young daughter Izzy and appallingly self-satisfied film director husband Greg (a scene-stealingly awful James Corrigan).
Sue has a project for Kate: she is to head down to Cornwall immediately to hear the story of Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas), an actress with a complicated past who essentially dropped out of society 30 years ago in the aftermath of a triumphant West End opening night. But following the recent death of her former partner, a beloved film director, she says she’s ready to share the story of what drove her out of the business, with a view to selling it as a film script.
And so Kate heads to Cornwall for a few days – following some coercion from Sue and dismay from Greg, who is angling for a second child and unhappy Kate’s trip will coincide with her next ovulation.
Upon arriving in Cornwall, Kate is met by Scott-Thomas’s Elaine, dressed in wellies, swimsuit, fur coat and wielding an axe. She has a cage of taxidermied birds that she seems to think are alive. Frankly, she looks nuts. Kate is baffled. And then… won over. Big time.
‘Lyonesse’ doesn’t necessarily feel like a parody or a pastiche of a romcom so much as it fully embraces the medium for a long time. James turns in a fine comic performance as the terminally awkward Kate. Scott Thomas is also great fun as Elaine, who presents her story to Kate as a sort of OTT but surprisingly moving performance piece. And Sara Powell adds a note of sobriety as Chris, a lesbian poet – and Elaine’s best friend – who Kate finds herself drawn to.
While it lands some points about the lack of support for women in a supposedly post-#MeToo world – both in terms of protection from predatory men, but also expectations of them as mothers – there is no denying its lightness.
Eventually, it gets heavy – too late for it to be reasonable to divulge the plot here, but certainly enough to give ‘Lyonesse’ some much-needed heft, as a new start promised to Kate sputters away into a false dawn.
It doesn’t quite work. ‘Lyonesse’ feels trapped between a crowd-pleasing, celebrity-tastic comedy with feminist undertones and a much bleaker answer to that. Both sections are effective in their way, but as a whole it’s disjointed.
Much of it comes down to Kate as a character. James is very entertaining, with a delightfully klutzy physicality and a voice that shoots awkwardly low when she’s trying to be taken seriously (which I’m sure is a thing that only happens in film but whatever, it’s funny). However, she seems to be required to simultaneously exist in our minds as a fairly regular office underachiever, but also a lovable kook married to a massively successful – and wealthy – film director. Much as her privilege is shown to be both a trap and an echo of what happened to Elaine, it also feels like it blunts the universality of her story.
Elaine’s extreme eccentricity also takes some of the bite out of her story, and there’s something disorientating about somebody who sounds like she was supposed to be a Felicity Kendall-type figure parading around as if she were Greta Garbo.
Given the play makes a specific point of critiquing male directors telling female stories, it’s a bit weird that it’s directed by a man without even a knowing wink to the audience. But Rickson does a good job: he’s not really known for the giggles, but it’s easy to forget how funny ‘Jerusalem’ was, and if he can’t solve ‘Lyonesse’, he can at least make the comedy sing. The set piece scene in which Elaine shares her story and they all get roaring drunk to the strains of Ultra Naté’s 1997 banger ‘Free’ is exquisitely handled.
Really ‘Lyonesse’ feels like an imperfect but worthwhile play that would have fit in well at the Royal Court 15 or so years ago, where it might have run for a couple of months without too much pressure. Dumped straight on the West End stage, with a starry cast, its flaws feel magnified. But it’s funny, and at best it has a savage clarity.