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CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
Shelagh Stephenson is a playwright to watch. She is currently writing a new play for the National Theatre but her latest, Ancient Lights, surfaces, as did The Memory of Water, at London's Hampstead Theatre. Ancient Lights changes direction from Five Kinds of Silence which I reviewed at the Lyric Hammersmith earlier this year.
Ancient Lights is a study of celebrity culture and the pressure it places on the celebrities themselves. All of the adults in Stephenson's latest play are successful media personalities: an American film star, a woman television war reporter, an Irish writer, a woman running her own public relations company, a woman film maker. All are old friends from their days at university and to some extent dissatisfied with their lot. As Stephenson unpeels the layers of hype and popular image we get a look at who they might be without the press releases and publicity façade.
The Christmas gathering in the wilds of Northumbria includes: The hostess Bea (Joanne Pearce), the PR executive and her current partner, Thaddeus, is an Irish novelist (Dermot Crowley); Kitty (Gwyneth Strong), intrepid news reporter from troubled areas of the world; and the handsome American film star, Tom (Don McManus). Iona (Ruth Gemmell) is making a film of the holiday. Completing the house party is Bea's teenage daughter, the star struck "wannabe" Joni (Sheridan Smith).
Almost no-one is as they appear to be. Kitty, deeply unhappy that soldiers were beating people up in order to be filmed, has moved to presenting cable drama documentaries about people who are rescued from near death. Tom employs Bea to fabricate a public image for him, and Thaddeus is, well, I'm not giving that away here!
Stephenson starts her play with Bea fretting over her chestnut and pine nut stuffing for the Christmas bird and Tad reading from a pathology textbook. All the characters are full of deep observations on the meaning of existence. Through a ghost story, everyone confronts their own nightmare, a doppelganger with their own faces walking towards them.
The ensemble performances are of the highest standard. I particularly liked Joanne Pearce's "taking it all in her stride" hostess with attention to detail and Sheridan Smith's posing and preening teenage daughter who pushes her mother out of the photo shot. There is deep irony as Bea discovers that she has been fooled by Tad's spin, apparently unaware that this might be karmic revenge because her work is to create these deceptions for her clients.
The set reflects itself with the idea of mirror images, a living room with pairs of cushions to sprawl on, but with an enormous Christmas tree. The director, Ian Brown, has paced the play well. The making of the video film is well used to unnerve everyone, self conscious that they are being filmed for later public consumption.
The "Ancient Lights" of the title are a mistake, a romantic notion of the American who saw it written on a sign. He discovers that the phrase has a down to earth explanation: a building cannot be erected within a certain number of feet, lest it cut out the light of the existing building.
Stephenson creates real characters, people we can relate to and find likeable. We can enjoy her plays, like those of Alan Ayckbourn, at two levels: as delightful, wry comedies and as comments on the human condition.
LINKS TO OTHER STEPHENSON PLAYS REVIEWED AT CurtainUp
An Experiment With An Air Pump
Five Kinds of Silence
The Memory of Water