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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

2:22: A Ghost Story review – Cheryl’s West End debut is a thunderous fright night

Cheryl as Jenny in 2:22.
Entertainment value … Cheryl as Jenny in 2:22. Photograph: Helen Murray

Since it opened in 2021, Danny Robins’s supernatural story, with its numerous West End casts, awards and killer twist, has become a well-oiled ghostly machine. It is also becoming a launchpad for singers who fancy treading the boards. First came Lily Allen’s feted tenure; now Cheryl makes her debut in the glare of the West End. As her own X Factor moment, it is respectable enough for a first go, if blunt-edged: big on volume and sudden, thunderous anger.

In fairness, the others are just as shouty. In this haunted-house tale that begins as a comedy of manners, Cheryl convincingly plays rattled new mother Jenny, who is the one who believes the house that she and her husband, Sam (Scott Karim), have bought is haunted. Their friend Lauren (Louise Ford) has come to dinner with her new builder boyfriend Ben (Jake Wood) – who is Mellors to her Lady Chatterley – and the drama’s frights play out over the course of this one night.

The original production cranked up the suspense while also giving us things to titter at, from class snobberies to sozzled satire. But this one takes a different tone. Still directed by Matthew Dunster, it feels like a dark comedy, verging on farce. It is the stagecraft – flashes of red lights, creepy mood music, razor jolts of sound – that makes us jump in lieu of the drama itself.

Scott Karim as Dan and Louise Ford as Lauren.
Comedy of manners … Scott Karim as Dan and Louise Ford as Lauren. Photograph: Helen Murray

The actors often speak in screeching tones, which drains key scenes of their scares. They do not hit all the beats of those scares either, just off in their timing, and the effect is less than spine-chilling. Karim bellows as Sam, a sarky rationalist, and we wish for a bit more of Hadley Fraser’s quieter, colder superciliousness, previously in the role. The animosity between Sam and Ben is not as powerful as it could be, and they end up slinging loud insults at each other like mud pies. Wood, returning as Ben, is the play’s strongest link. He hams up his role, which takes the subtlety out of it, but he makes it work and is a big, shining presence on stage.

The suspense arrives eventually and the twist at the end is so clever, even for those who know what’s coming, that it sends us reeling back to the beginning in our minds. The production ultimately succeeds not because of its ramped up comedy but in spite of it. It will surely win audiences once again: it has entertainment value, and there are intelligent discussions about gentrification which bring depth to the ghost story as well. But there is the sense here that having become such a machine, it risks losing its heart.

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