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‘The Glow’ review

  • Theatre, Experimental
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Glow, Royal Court, 2022
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A young woman with terrifying powers is found in a Victorian asylum in this haunting and brilliant drama from the writer of ‘Pomona’ and ‘X’

In Victorian England, 1863, archly menacing spiritual medium Mrs Lyall (Rakie Ayola) finds a nameless, virtually mute young woman (Ria Zmitrowicz) locked away in the darkest recesses of an asylum. She abducts her – leaving a hapless former servant to take her place – names her Cassie, and brings her home to act as a conduit for her rituals, much to the horror of her prissy, spoiled son Mason (Fisayo Akinade). Instantly, Mrs Lyall seems able to contact the dead. But can she? Or is it all the new woman?

Taking place in tiny pools of light in the inky darkness of Merle Hensel’s set, the first half of Vicky Featherstone’s production of Alistair McDowall’s new play is an immaculately atmospheric haunted house, beautifully lit by Jessica Hung Han Yun. It looks very much like ‘The Glow’ is going to be a sort of homage to the Victorian ghost story, with Ayola’s magnificently scenery-chewing Mrs Lyall the central antagonist. But that is not what happens.

McDowall’s brain-melting horror-dramas are quite unlike anything else on the English stage: ‘Pomona’ was a blackly hilarious Lovecraft-indebted shaggy dog story about apocalyptic forces below the streets of Manchester; ‘X’ followed the adventures of the crew of a time-displaced space base. And now they’re joined by ‘The Glow’, a play very much in their lineage, albeit totally different in form.

It’s also a very tricky one to write about without divulging the enormous twist that occurs at the end of the brief (sub 40 minute) first half, which more or less blows the original premise out of the water. Trying to be restrained, let’s just say that the focus very much switches to Zmitrowicz’s intense but heartbreakingly plaintive performance as a being – also known by the names Brooke and simply The Woman – blessed and cursed with unfathomable powers.

Touchstones here are perhaps the more existential end of the superhero genre and the darker, sadder end of ‘Doctor Who’; to drop the biggest spoiler, it becomes clear that The Woman has been alive for an extremely long time, and suffered immensely. And yet ‘The Glow’ isn’t really about her pain or her powers, but about the connections she forges with other people on the way: a kindly nurse, a gruff old soldier, an eccentric historian. Zmitrowicz gives a beautiful performance as a woman emotionally scarred by her prodigiously long life, yet is always drawn to people, both to help them and because she craves their company. There is a fundamental sweetness to her, and a pitiable loneliness, as she outlives the people who protect her.

Like ‘X’ and ‘Pomona’, ‘The Glow’ also clearly exists as an experiment in a form largely ignored by theatre. It’s perhaps trickier to say what that form is after the ghost story first half, but crude as the comparison to the superhero yarn might be, there is clearly a lot of shared DNA: the play’s premise revolves around the protagonist’s extraordinary abilities, and the way they separate her from a world that she would like to find a place in. And ultimately she does seem to find a sort of peace, in the remarkable, tragic, accepting, awesome speech that closes the play. 

There are things about ‘The Glow’ and its premise I’d be more critical of if there was anything else on the stage like it, and Featherstone’s immaculately stylish direction serves a script that would be left exposed by a more naturalistic production. But Alistair McDowell has undoubtedly come up with the goods again in this strange and beautiful play, a mix of sci-fi, folk myth and elegy for humanity.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£12-£45. Runs 1hr 55min
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