Following five West End productions (six if we include the third production’s major cast change) and runs in the US, Australia and Singapore, the hit play 2:22 A Ghost Story has finally embarked on a UK tour – fittingly beginning its Manchester run on Halloween!
2:22 follows Jenny and her husband, Sam, who have recently bought a large house in Greater London, which they are renovating. For several nights, at exactly 2:22 AM, Jenny hears the sound of someone moving around the house and a man’s voice crying, via the baby monitor in her daughter’s bedroom. Jenny becomes convinced that the house is haunted. Sam, being a sceptic and having been away on a work trip, insists that there are more logical explanations for the noises.
The couple hosts a dinner party for Lauren, an old university friend of Sam’s, and Ben, her new boyfriend who has a belief in the supernatural. After discussing the strange noises, Jenny persuades the others to stay up until 2:22 to see what happens.
2:22 is known for its star casting. Its original cast was led by Lily Allen, who made her stage debut as Jenny, a character later played by none other than the nation’s former sweetheart, Cheryl. The casting has, without a doubt, been the selling point of the show.
In the tour, the protective and paranoid Jenny is played by Louisa Lytton ( Edge of Heaven, EastEnders) and her pretentious, hunky husband, Sam, is played by Nathaniel Curtis (It’s a Sin, The Witcher: Blood Origin). The couple are accompanied by Sam’s smart but boozy friend, Lauren, played by Charlene Boyd (River City, The Trial of Christine Keeler), and her spiritual, working-class boyfriend, Ben, is played by National Television Award and BAFTA nominee Joe Absolom (EastEnders, Doc Martin, A Confession).
The cast is strong. The characters are well-written. But I’m unsure why this Lauren is a Yank. If the actress was American, fine – previous Laurens have been both Aussie and American – but making her American adds nothing except to showcase Boyd’s acting abilities: she does well to play a complex character whilst putting on an American accent. The play’s casting champions diversity but they need not make Lauren American when the actress playing her is Scottish. There are countless American characters but how often do you hear a Scottish accent onstage?
The darkly comic play employs many conventions of horror and thriller over the two-hour run. It feels very much like a tribute to, and occasionally a satire of, classic horror and thriller. Examples include strange noises, a baby monitor, and items seemingly moving by themselves.
There are also stories within the overarching narrative. It’s not anthological: the stories are not played out; rather, they are told, and these past encounters with ghosts inform the respective characters’ (dis)belief in ghosts.
The play has some interesting politics, such as the working-class Ben not fitting in with the trio of toffs to debates on both gentrification and ghosts. The characters go back and forth with the latter, with convincing counterarguments as to why ghosts do or do not exist; and why or why something can/not be explained away with science. The gentrification and class discussions are used to understand and debate ghosts – i.e. those left behind. This reflects back on itself: do we treat poor people and the homeless like ghosts? There is even an interesting discussion on young, well-to-do toffs buying old houses, ripping them apart and removing any memory of previous homeowners – might that be why they are being haunted?
The play feels very much like a domestic drama with ghosts. I quite enjoy a situational horror or thriller, where there’s just one (or one main) setting, the action unfolds in real-time, and there is lots of talking; it’s more character-focused than action-based.
Indeed, 2:22 is just two hours of sitting around and talking (and storming around and shouting), without much horror happening. There are some seemingly supernatural moments which end up just being mating foxes or one of the (human) characters – as is a convention of slashers, yes, but slashers also have genuine scares.
2:22 is not gruesome, graphic or gory; it is more about humans than ghosts but it is chilling and will make you think. It also asks indirectly if humans are the real monsters and why we live in fear of ghosts when those most likely to hurt us are real, living people.
The play masterfully builds up tension and suspense. There are two digital clocks, one much bigger than the other (I did not notice the other one until the end), slowly approaching 2:22 AM.
The play begins with a prologue: it is just before 2:22.. After this, it’s after 16:00. The play is divided into several scenes. Scenes are separated by glaring red light, the clock skipping hours in seconds, and a horrifying scream which will have you jumping out of your skin, every… single… time.
The screams are the scariest part of the show – and they aren’t even part of the story. One might criticise them for being cheap jump scares but I enjoyed them. They are a novelty, yes, but they also indicate that we are getting closer and closer to the dreaded hour, which heightens the tension.
I knew that a twist was coming (no spoilers, don’t worry) but I had no idea what it was. I had made a guess but the twist was far more shocking – even though it is a twist which has been employed in other works of fiction. During the interval, a girl told me that she was seeing the show again so that she could process and understand the twist. The ending raises questions and does not directly provide answers but, on the bus home, things begin to make sense to me; the play is full of clues which will just go over your head.
The play can be a bit self-indulgent. It’s clever but I’m not sure it’s as clever as it thinks it is (kinda like Sam).
Indeed, this is a divisive play. Both WhatsOnStage and The Guardian have reviewed the play thrice, and both have given various productions two, three and four stars (WhatsOnStage gave the Lily Allen production three stars, the Cheryl production four stars, and the touring production two stars; The Guardian gave the Allen production four stars, the Cheryl production three stars, and the LA production two stars).
The touring production is receiving mostly three and four stars from other reviewers. People who have seen multiple productions say that different actors portray the characters differently so perhaps the show’s strength/weakness lies in its cast. More likely, though: that this play is just not everybody’s cup of poison.
2:22 A Ghost Story runs at The Lowry (Lyric Theatre) until November 4 2023 and tours the UK until June 1 2024. The current cast stars in the show until December 2 2023. The new cast (Fiona Wade as Jenny, George Rainsford as Sam, Vera Chok as Lauren, and Jay McGuinness as Ben) begin performances on January 5 2024.