“Roslyn has created a world where sadness and humour have a strong bond”
Despite serious safety concerns, the plant Pennyroyal has often been used as medicine. Most commonly for fatigue and the common cold but in extreme cases to end pregnancy. Despite the appeal of its lilac-mauve flowers and spearmint fragrance, it harbours secret ingredients that kick with a potentially fatal toxicity. Lucy Roslyn’s play, “Pennyroyal”, is beautifully structured in a similarly natural way. Her words, stylised and arranged to catch the ear, possess undoubtable healing powers whilst simultaneously betraying the veins of venom that lay close to the surface. It is these two fundamental characteristics that drive the protagonists of Roslyn’s sophisticated and acute drama of enduring love.
Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella, ‘The Old Maid’, Roslyn introduces us to sisters Daphne and Christine, and immediately ploughs the ugly and the beautiful into the same bed. Daphne (Madison Clare) was diagnosed with ‘Premature Ovarian Insufficiency’ at nineteen. Before the diagnosis, she didn’t give a thought about her ‘expected’ roles as a woman or, later in life, a mother. But with the chance now taken away it preoccupies her, and she is haunted by the ghosts of unborn children. Older sister Christine, played by Roslyn, is on hand to give her support, as well as her eggs that she doesn’t need for herself. Of course, it doesn’t go to plan. But the failed dreams and expectations of both women knot them together in an ever-tightening embrace that is suffocating as well as life-enhancing.
Josh Roche’s styled staging sharpens the dialogue and is complemented by Roslyn’s and Clare’s fine, natural performances. They pay little heed to the fourth wall but the switch from action to interaction is seamless. Similarly, the shifts in tone encapsulate the full and complicated spectrum of sisterhood emotions. They can never quite escape the shadow of the absent, unseen mother; sometimes just wandering about in the garden, sometimes six feet under it, depending on the shifts in time that either follow or lead the flow of the narrative.
Roslyn has created a world where sadness and humour have a strong bond. The tragedy of the ‘horrible coffee’ in the hospital waiting room threatens to upstage the fact that the mother is dying in the next room. Eggs, not yet embryos, are given names, and consequently adopt endearing personalities that never see the light of day. You could cry. You should cry. Yet you laugh instead. The intent behind the acting is faultless. The execution of these moments by Roslyn and Clare is quite extraordinary.
Edith Wharton planted the seed of this drama a century ago, but Roslyn has nurtured it and created a heart-warming and sometimes heart-breaking tale for today. One that resonates much more than the original. The focus may be on the things expected of women and what happens when they don’t go to plan (or rather the plan that society dictates), but it encompasses humanity as a whole and triggers wider reactions. By the same token, the intimacy of the Finborough’s stage is an apt setting for this play, but the story is in no way confined there. It follows you home, and brings a smile, and a tear, long after you’ve left the theatre.
“Beatriz and Buckley are an unlikely duo on paper perhaps, but combined they are the absolute shining stars of this production”
You can’t beat a good ghost story in a theatre. The darkened auditorium, the focused hush, the sheer unlikeliness of something in a proscenium arch genuinely scaring you.
I remember the first time I saw The Woman in Black, the ultimate theatrical ghost story. I was 14, and having seen a fair bit of theatre already, I fancied myself a little sophisticate. But the first time the woman in black appeared on stage I literally screamed and dove under my brother’s seat. Deeply embarrassed I quickly composed myself, only to do it again 15 minutes later. But The Woman in Black ticks the box on nearly every classic ghost story trope- the old, mysterious setting, the misty moors, a stranger coming to a strange place, a world still living largely in candlelight. 2:22, however, sets the scene in the bright light of modernity with no tropes to hide behind.
Taking place in a doer-upper that’s been gutted and tastefully redecorated (designed by Anna Fleischle), there are no shadows, no scary nooks, no creaking floorboards. On first glance, this is the last place you’d expect to see a ghost, everything new and gleaming, the paint still wet. Even the shrieks from outside are cleanly explained away by smug scientist Sam (Elliot Cowan) as foxes getting it on.
But despite the lovely open-plan space, motion-censored lights outside, and Alexa conducting the house’s technology on demand, Sam’s wife Jenny (Giovanna Fletcher) feels far less certain that there aren’t supernatural forces afoot. For the past few nights, at 2:22am precisely, she hears footsteps in her daughter’s bedroom, and a man sobbing. When she switches on the light- poof- it’s gone. With guests over for dinner, they decide to make a night of it, waiting until 2:22 to hear for themselves.
Writer Danny Robbins toes the line with balletic aplomb between silly fun with friends and a genuine coaxing fear amongst the cast, and the audience in turn. Guest Lauren (Stephanie Beatriz), sort of believes but is just up for a fun boozy night, where her new partner Ben (James Buckley) is an excitable believer. It’s a nice balance against husband Sam who is maddeningly cynical, and wife Jenny who is exasperatingly histrionic.
The play is perforated with a harrowing scream throughout, which, after maybe the first one, doesn’t really make sense. Its purpose seems only to make the audience jump and to irritate me, which is a shame because the plot is plenty unnerving without it, and if anything, it’s quite distracting, causing a kind of pantomime effect with the audience who, having jumped out of their skins, end up laughing and talking amongst themselves after each one.
Beatriz and Buckley are an unlikely duo on paper perhaps, but combined they are the absolute shining stars of this production. Both known for their previous comic roles, each employs deft comic timing as a mood-lifter as well as a creation of awkward, sometimes painful intensity. It’s artistry to be able to make an audience laugh whilst simultaneously furthering the tension. They also both show themselves to be serious actors, with plenty of emotional scope.
Cowan is playful and gratingly smug, whilst retaining his humanity. He does well to appear not to realise his negative effect on those around him, keeping him on just about the right side of likeable.
Fletcher, however, pitches herself at around 9 from the very beginning and therefore has very little room for growth in hysteria and upset. It would be far more affecting if she had played at least the first half as ‘mildly irritated’ rather than ‘capsizingly distressed’. But if you don’t want it to ruin the rest of the story, you have to actively decide that maybe her character is just quite annoying but still deserving of sympathy.
This is not ground-breaking work, and the final explanation of the ghostly occurrences (don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin it) is only just about satisfying. But it’s ideal wintery entertainment; a titillating plot with genuinely intriguing characters and relationships, and surprisingly funny.