Lyonesse play review: Kristin Scott Thomas casts her spell

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James have strong chemistry in Lyonesse (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Lyonesse play review and star rating: ★★★★

Saying “good luck” to an actor just isn’t the done thing (you must always say “break a leg!”.) And similarly, critics should never read other reviews before writing their own. But I’d heard Lyonesse had got multiple one-star reviews, which is vanishingly rare, so I couldn’t resist Googling before I started writing my own.

In over a decade of theatre reviewing I have never seen such a barrel load of harsh takes about a play I thought was pretty great, actually. The incredibly strong lead performance by Kristin Scott Thomas alone surely pegs Lyonesse at at least a three.

Let’s get to the bad bits first. This new piece of writing by Penelope Skinner is uneven and far too often on-the-nose. In the second act it tells rather than shows, losing the mystical feel teased at the end of the first act and moving into soberingly conventional parts where the more boring characters sling stretches of narrative at one another. The Me Too theme is also sometimes handled with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.

But no play is perfect, and at other times Skinner’s writing is majestic. Her story, essentially about female relationships and embracing an alternative life, is mythical and ambitious. We meet Lily James’ Kate, a young film executive in a toxic marriage who is sent to meet elderly stage actor Elaine, played by Scott Thomas, to work on a feature about her life. Arriving at her decrepit mansion by the sea, Kate becomes attracted to Elaine’s anonymity and outsider status.

It is held together by three central, superb performances, especially from Kristin Scott Thomas, who at 63 has entered the age where she can appropriately play eccentric older women, and in the way she cavorts across the stage, sometimes doing her best Patsy from Ab Fab impression. it feels like she’s waited a lifetime to let loose like this. She is hilarious, and utterly compelling as the wizened old thesp who has made the most of what trauma left her. There is a particularly sublime monologue in the first act where Elaine recounts the tale of her abuse at the hands of her former partner to Kate via a play within a play that is utterly bonkers and hilarious, as well as properly sad.

It’s the sort of zany, off-the-wall material you wouldn’t think could ever make it to a West End stage the size of the Harold Pinter theatre. The man to land it is clearly Ian Rickson, who directed Jerusalem, perhaps the play of the century, and who brings Elaine to vivid life, encouraging Scott Thomas to drift across the stage in a way that would feel overcooked if it weren’t in the hands of an absolute pro.

James gets her moments too; on a few occasions during mental wobbles she gazes out beyond the fourth wall where the ocean lies and you can feel her angst. (The sea becomes a motif for danger, even death, and there are multiple literary references, including to Stevie Smith’s poem Not Waving But Drowning and a general Woolfian To The Lighthouse vibe.) The duo have strong chemistry and it’s compelling to see James’ eyes widen and her shoulders loosen as she explores the possibilities of life away from her heteronormative reality. It’s atmospheric, spooky, and just in time for Halloween.

Elaine’s neighbour down the road in rural Cornwall (Lyonesse is a kingdom which, according to legend, stretched from Land’s End to to Isle of Scilly) is a single woman called Chris, played by Sara Powell, who brings a sobering force, anchoring Elaine with a dose of the ordinary.

There are some absolutely beautiful lines. In one bit Elaine imagines herself as a toy ballerina who dances every day. Yes, says Chris, “but only in circles.” Another time she pointedly asks: “What if I’m no longer spellbinding?” These lines sing on Georgia Lowe’s lushly immersive set.

Skinner’s idea, to examine who actually gets to tell women’s stories, is a good one, but Lyonesse actually has more in common with Jerusalem than just being directed by Rickson: in the first act it has an otherworldiness, a mythic quality, through the examination of Elaine, that would have been fascinating to see more of. It’s a shame Lyonesse doesn’t get weirder as it goes on, but it’s still a compelling night at the theatre watching one of Britain’s greatest acting talents at their best.

Lyonesse plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 23 December

Read more: The best London theatre of 2022, from Prima Facie to Jerusalem


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