Penelope Skinner’s pathetic, unrealistic portrayal of the terrible treatment women endure on stage completely fails to capture whatever pulled Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James in. The storyline riffs endlessly on Great Expectations and Sunset Boulevard (down the road, much better), the characters are underdeveloped, and the prose is overflowing with exposition.
Ian Rickson’s production features some bold and humorous moments, and we witness KST go overboard as scenery-chewing former actress Elaine Dailey, who emerges from thirty years of hiding in a house named Lyonesse after a lost land that is gradually sliding into the Cornish sea due to erosion and the weight of the play’s signposting. Scott Thomas is one of our best dramatic stage stars, but to put it simply, there’s not much of a distinction between a hammy actor who is acting the part and a real hammy performance.
James fares slightly better as Kate Trellis, the exec from an all-female production company Lilith, who is charged with securing Elaine’s story. Her performance is nuanced though the character is a loosely-tied bundle of issues. A high achiever with low self-esteem, Kate is balancing her career, motherhood, and the desire of her smug director husband (James Corrigan) to sire another child on her, even though the first nearly killed her.
At the opening, Kate recounts Elaine’s history to her boss Sue (Doon Mackichan, in a mannered performance of alpha-female unsisterliness) as if reading a Wikipedia entry. A teenage discovery, Elaine married a much older actor, ran off with a revered film director, and then vanished after the first night of a successful West End show.
In the dilapidated Cornish house, a balefully eccentric Elaine greets Kate in a swimsuit, fur coat, and wellies, brandishing a hatchet. But she softens to reveal the alleged act of male violence that caused her disappearance in a frankly bonkers stand-up monologue that culminates in her dancing and singing Ultra Nate’s You’re Free with her lesbian poet neighbor Chris (Sara Powell).
The three women become instantly besotted – mostly platonically – even though Kate’s a wet blanket, Elaine a raging narcissist, and Chris a stereotype, and none of them has a shred of interior life. The plot lurches improbably forward as if it is being made up on the spot. I didn’t believe a second of it.
Arguably, Skinner is aiming for a sort of absurdism, rejecting credibility and consistency as potential traps, like marriage or the pressure to reproduce. Certainly, Elaine’s swivel-eyed vanity and the suspicion her story might be invented are meant to make us think about how women are dismissed, disbelieved, or just not heard.
But mostly this seems like an assemblage of half-baked ideas and lazy conceits. Why Lyonesse? Why does Act One end in slapstick? Why does the supposedly raging sea only hit the side of the house twice? Why, above all, did Scott Thomas, James, and Rickson sign up for this? As star vehicles go, it’s a car crash