Penelope Skinner
Sonia Friedman Productions
Harold Pinter Theatre

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Doon Mackichan and Lily James in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lily James and Kristen Scott Thomas in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Kristen Scott Thomas in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Kristen Scott Thomas in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Doon Mackichan in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lily James in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Sara Powell in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lily James in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan
James Corrigan in Lyonesse Credit: Manuel Harlan

Penelope Skinner confesses in an interview that her new play, Lyonesse, was originally four hours long and had nine characters. She rewrote it, cut down the number of players, but, to me, it still feels baggy at nearly three hours, uneven, an incontinent pouring out of many ideas.

She has much to say, but roams all over the place with her references. A post-MeToo polemic, a black farce (there are dropped trousers) or a Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse personal meditation? Skinner has put much of herself into it, she admits.

A woman’s lot in a man’s world is not a happy one—a career woman with children and a professional husband still has to keep more plates in the air than he does. Women may think they’ve made progress, but more men than women still control the scene, whether it’s the stage, film, business or any other sphere. Look around.

Film executive Kate (Lily James) has been given the task by her ‘Lilith’ firm’s London boss Sue (Doon Mackichan) to interview and reel in a reclusive former famous actress (Kristin Scott Thomas). Think Norma Desmond. I think Jennifer Saunders. There’s much ham in this soggy baguette. Is it deliberate? “I am a ballerina gathering dust in a musical box”.

Kate is thrilled. But, even though she has a nanny, a mother on hand, lives in a rich London enclave, she’s still a bit flaky. She has issues, postnatal issues, but her film director husband Greg (James Corrigan) is not listening—he wants another baby soon. He is controlling and patronising. However, off she goes to Cornwall, where Elaine is living in liberated squalor—in a crumbling house beaten by waves.

It is therapeutic for Kate, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this other possible life. The minute she claps eyes on her, Kate is smitten by Elaine in wellies, swimsuit under a fur coat, swimming hat and axe in her hand. The magic of this uninhibited life enchants her. Lyonesse refers to the magical Cornish kingdom that vanished beneath the waves, but it could be taken as lionesses, brave independent Elaine and her mainstay lesbian poet friend Chris (Sara Powell) from down the road.

Elaine puts on a show for Kate, a lengthy performative monologue of her life history with abusive men. Is it meant to be a Sally Bowles Cabaret act? In red kimono and Marilyn Monroe blonde wig, standing on a wooden pallet, microphone in hand, room strung with coloured lights, with backing from Chris. This is where I think the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas is not made for comedy as unsubtle and slapstick as this.

She is meant to be unconventional, a free woman, damaged by the past, its memento and metaphor is that cage of stuffed birds central to the scene (there are several references to Hitchcock). Her cold-water swimming sustains her. She left life in the glare thirty years ago for a simple job in a shop. Now she wants to tell her story and maybe even act in it. “I’m thirty-five”, “I started counting backwards at fifty”. Kate is all for it. She even starts to fall for Chris, a bereaved soul who spouts poetry, more signifiers…

Greg comes to fetch her home—she’s been away too long. Will she use the power she’s absorbed by osmosis or will she revert to type, the high achieving good girl? And will the film company accept her ideas? Or, as is usual, will the male execs and film men have their own way? A play written by a woman on women’s matters has a sympathetic male director, Ian Rickson. Not all men are bad, Greg tells Kate... Is Skinner demonstrating that women capitulate to what is ‘good for us’? Or that they have little autonomy? And if they do, they are considered bonkers?

Made up of numerous snapshot scenes, mostly two-handers, occasionally three, the story progresses by exposition. Blackouts punctuate the end of each scene and the audience applaud each one. The first half is at least ninety minutes long, the second an hour.

Is this patchwork construction meant to be theatre of the absurd? The American visitors sitting behind me are disappointed, “oh it’s to be expected”, one says. And I see a few walkouts, but on the whole people have come to see famous actresses.

Scott Thomas pulls out all the stops in an oddball performance (many jokes fall flat), balanced by the calm of Powell, but James is one-note, all flapping hands and hyperventilation. Mackichan, hair with a streak of pink, is a cartoonish delight, but she’s in a different play. And that’s the problem, there are several plays struggling to get out. Powell has little to do and Corrigan is pure device.

Maybe Skinner is better suited to lengthy series—the five-part-long TV series The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies I’ve yet to watch, but if anything has come out of seeing Lyonesse, it is my curiosity to see more of her work. She has infinite promise in the hands of the right guardian angels.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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