Penelope Skinner’s new play, Lyonesse, makes its world premiere at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson. The title comes from a Cornwall mystery, with the word meaning different things to different people, the most common belief being that it refers to a lost kingdom submerged forever by the waves of a great storm. The mystery with this play, is why with such a stellar cast, it seems so lost at sea.
The first act is promising enough. Kate is a young go-getter at a production company, dispatched by her boss Sue (Doon Mackichan) to Cornwall to meet actress Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas). A quick potted history in Sue’s office tells us that Elaine has been missing for thirty years, having simply vanished after the opening night of a play in which she received rave reviews.
Luckily Elaine’s agent has known all along that she’s been living in Cornwall, swimming in the sea, and working in a local shop. Now Elaine wants to tell her story in a film. Kate goes to Elaine’s grand home, named Lyonesse and suitably shabby thanks to Georgia Lowe’s design, to write a treatment. Whilst drinking with Elaine and neighbour Chris (Sara Powell) Kate starts to question her marriage and her life back in London.
It’s a little bit Sunset Boulevard, with Elaine a kind of hippy version of Norma Desmond, though this reclusive star prefers woolly hats to a turban. We’ve already met Greg (James Corrigan), Kate’s director spouse, and even after one brief scene it comes as no surprise to anyone that she should want to leave him – without giving away any spoilers, misogynism seems to spew forth every time he opens his mouth.
There’s a message that Lyonesse is trying to get across, Greg’s views are obvious, but there’s more casual misogyny at every turn, even Sue makes disparaging remarks about the amount of maternity leave that Kate has taken. Elaine’s story is diminished in favour of her lover’s, just as Kate’s feelings are sidelined by hers, and the fact that both Kate and Greg assume Chris is a man before they’ve met her, adds more fuel to the fire.
But these important messages are almost lost in a melee of distractions. Lyonesse clocks in at nearly three hours, and it’s not immediately obvious why it needs to be that long, this story could easily be told in two (or ninety minutes with no interval at a push).
The first act is filled with comedy, some of it shocking, some of it obvious, and eventually turns into a form of slapstick, just before the interval, in a sequence that’s enjoyable but seems out of place. As we go into the second act there’s much to be resolved, and lots of potential to address some big issues, but instead it just meanders along for another seventy minutes, not really taking us anywhere, and crucially, not saying anything new.
The cast all do good job, but seem uncomfortable in their roles, with the exception of Sara Powell as Chris and Lily James as Kate. The star casting here means that Lyonesse is pretty much guaranteed a sold out run, but audiences are likely to be more enamoured with the cast than the story, which is enjoyable enough, if a little underwhelming.