The Cornish coast provides a wild and windswept backdrop to Lyonesse, serving as a melting pot for the mundane and the magical, and a meeting point for two women who brave the elements and bare their souls on the edge of the ocean.
Former star of stage and screen, Elaine, (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has been missing for decades, turns up in a rambling old house by the sea, only venturing out to take a daily swim, whatever the weather – making her, by city standards, an eccentric recluse.
Film executive Kate (Lily James) agrees to meet Elaine to discuss the circumstances of her disappearance. With her neighbour Chris (Sara Powell) for support, Elaine gives a solo performance blending pathos with humour, as she explains how she left London to escape an abusive man, taking the brunt of the fall-out, as his career went from strength to strength, while her own became a distant memory.
In reviews from her heyday, Elaine’s performance is described as “spellbinding” and “a force of nature” and these terms could equally be applied the Cornish coast which begins to cast its spell on Kate, as playwright Penelope Skinner takes the narrative into the realms of fantasy and folklore.
Lyonesse, pronounced ‘lioness’, may sound like an allusion to the pride of lionesses who inhabit the play, but it is in fact the name of a stretch of land that, according to local legend, slipped into the sea and sank without trace.
Kate is torn between the job security offered by her boss Sue (Doon MacKichan) at the production company Lilith and the creative freedom she enjoys when she meets Elaine and is welcomed into her home. Struggling to keep her career afloat while raising a toddler, she also feels under pressure from her husband Greg (James Corrigan) to have a second child.
Arriving in Cornwall worlds away from her hectic life in London and controlling spouse, Kate gets into the groove and reconnects with her creative spirit – laughing, dancing and even taking a dip in the sea. Wafting around in a floaty chiffon frock borrowed from Elaine, Kate channels her inner goddess and declares that the outfit makes her feel “magical.”
Under the direction of Ian Rickson, James and Scott Thomas work well together and both display a good sense of comic timing. Meanwhile, a bird cage dangles overhead like the sword of Damocles, but its symbolism feels clunky in comparison with the subtler impressions evocatively conveyed by sound effects.
Charged with the transformational energy of Kate’s visit, Elaine and Chris feel like change is afoot, but both are destined for disappointment. After dramatically quoting lines written by famous poets, Chris takes out a booklet of her own poems which she had intended to give to Kate, but she never gets the chance.
Elaine longs to tell her own account of events and is devastated when she learns how the truth is to be distorted to make her life story more compelling for the big screen.
While the theme of men manipulating women is a thread running through the play, Kate’s dilemma is as much to do with her own inner demons of self-doubt.
Even in an age of supposed equality of opportunities, on this evidence, it’s hard to see how the conflict between career and motherhood, or even between creative self-expression and harsh reality, can ever be resolved without compromise.
Lyonesse is directed by Ian Rickson and can be seen at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 23rd December.
Review by Angela Lord
Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a reclusive and talented actress, disappears in mysterious circumstances. 30 years later, she finally feels ready to tell her story – summoning Kate, a young film executive (Lily James), to her remote Cornish home to assist with her glorious comeback.
But who really controls the stories we tell, and how we get to tell them? Will these women own their narrative, or will it be swept away from them at any given moment?
A story for our times, playing for a strictly limited season from 17 October – 23 December at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Sonia Friedman Productions presents
Written by Penelope Skinner
Directed by Ian Rickson
Designed by Georgia Lowe
Lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun
Music by Stephen Warbeck
Sound by Tingying Dong
Casting by Amy Ball CDG
Harold Pinter Theatre
Panton Street, London SW1Y 4DN
First performance: 17 October 2023
Final performance: 23 December 2023
Opening night: 25 October 2023