Lyonesse at Harold Pinter Theatre
In 2008, playwright Penelope Skinner’s first work F*cked, which premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre, was welcomed with wide critical acclaim. More than a decade later, Skinner makes her West End debut with Lyonesse, a production starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, directed by Ian Rickson.
Here, the focus is on Elaine (Scott Thomas), an actress who mysteriously disappeared from the scene after a successful opening night of a play. 30 years later, Elaine decides to make her comeback, ready to disclose the reasons behind her reclusiveness. Kate (James), a film-executive working for a company interested in feminist subjects, is sent to Cornwall by her boss (Doon Mackichan) to meet Elaine, with the aim of transposing her story into a film.
What follows is an intriguing, but flawed text, which concentrates primarily on Elaine in the first act and shifts its centre to Kate and her marriage to self-obsessed filmmaker Greg (James Corrigan) in the second half. The juxtaposition of two apparently different characters like Kate and Elaine, ignites a captivating dynamic between the two, their confrontations exposing Kate’s uncertainty and Elaine’s eccentricities. It would have been interesting to see their relationship and the one that Kate establishes with Chris (Sara Powell), Elaine’s friend and neighbour, explored further. Whilst Skinner’s choice of having Kate’s and Greg’s marriage at the core of the second act adds layers to James’ character, it detracts from that of Elaine, and ultimately, it feels as if we never fully grasp who they really are.
Scott Thomas and James are highly enjoyable to watch, with the former delivering some of the best moments, her overtly theatrical performance emphasising Elaine’s peculiarities. A standout monologue in the first act, where Elaine denounces her abuser whilst recounting her story with the aid of a microphone, is delivered by Scott Thomas with painful sharpness, her overstated attire and blonde wig openly in contrast with the brutality of her reminiscence. This is followed by an equally great scene where Chris, Kate and Elaine get drunk, sing, and dance; it’s liberating not only for the characters themselves, but also for the audience to watch these women who are trapped enjoying a moment of deserved freedom. It’s the only concession that Skinners allows to her characters.
Whilst Lyonesse opens with a good premise and feels accomplished in the first part, the introduction of further topics in what follows makes the production as a whole feel disjointed. Still, there are some fine moments, and the final scene between Scott Thomas and Powell gives us a glimpse of how great this play could have been.
Images: Manuel Harlan
Lyonesse is at Harold Pinter Theatre from 17th October until 23rd December 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.