Review: 2:22 A Ghost Story whips the theatrical rug from under our feet

2:22 A Ghost Story, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, until October 21. Also heading to Theatre Royal Brighton from October 24-28; and Chichester Festival Theatre from February 6-10.
Nathaniel Curtis as Sam. Photo Johan PerssonNathaniel Curtis as Sam. Photo Johan Persson
Nathaniel Curtis as Sam. Photo Johan Persson

Wow! You really don’t see this ending coming. And when it comes, you’ll find yourself immediately unravelling the whole evening just to make sure it makes sense. And yes, it probably does. But even if it doesn’t, then who cares. In the end, this is terrific theatre which really does whip the rug from under your feet.

The cleverness is that the whole thing is on countdown – successive scenes taking us closer and closer to 2:22 when, according to Jenny, things really do go bump in the night. Or more precisely, footsteps tap in her baby daughter’s room and you can hear a man quietly crying.

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The set-up is that Jenny and Sam have recently moved into a big old rambling house and are in mid-renovations when Sam goes off on business. He comes home on the night of their first dinner party, welcoming Ben and Lauren (Lauren being an old university mate of his).

It’s quickly clear that’s all’s not well between husband and wife. Jenny – a lovely performance from Louisa Lytton – is wound up and on edge from the early-morning happenings. Sam – just as impressive from Nathaniel Curtis – blunders in, showing her zero compassion for what she’s been through. Instead he brow-beats her – and indeed the others – with his endless rationalism, his insistence that there really is an explanation for absolutely everything. Even when clearly there isn’t.

Curtis invests him with great energy, with a fair degree of cruelty and a total certainty as he talks over everyone, rubbishing everything Jenny says. But she sticks to her guns and lays down a challenge: if they really don’t believe her, then stay up with her until 2:22 – an invitation, of course, richly extended to all of us sitting there gawping.

It’s intriguing, endlessly intriguing, but possibly not quite as scary as all the pre-publicity would have us believe. Too many of the shocks are reliant on sudden noises, but maybe this is just slightly the wrong venue. It would be fascinating to catch up with the play later in the tour in Brighton or Chichester where inevitably you will feel much, much closer to the action.

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The dress circle is a fantastic place to sit for the big numbers in the big musicals at the Mayflower. For this, though, you just feel far too far away. Southampton’s dress circle is all about enjoying the spectacle; for straight theatre, though, it’s just the distance you feel. So who knows, maybe elsewhere this will be a rather different experience.

But there’s no doubting the cleverness of it all even if Ben and Lauren are roles which are rather less well drawn. Ben is Joe Absolom and Charlene Boyd is Lauren; and both of them play it with skill, but both at times are rather difficult to hear – certainly at this distance. And Lauren’s descent into noisy slurring drunkenness is a bit annoying.

But stick with it, and the second half, considerably stronger than the first, rewards generously as the on-stage clock counts us down to the big moment Jenny has been warning us about.

And then, when all is revealed, the production tumbles nicely into Mousetrap territory with big projections above and either side of the stage telling us to keep the secret. “Shhh, don’t tell!” No, we certainly won’t. The ending is far too good to wreck for anybody.