When a new Artistic Director presents his first show, you can't help but view it as a kind of mission statement, giving a taste of what we can expect from the theatre in future. So it's hard to know what to expect at Hampstead after Edward Hall's opening production, the premiere of Shelagh Stevenson's Enlightenment, because although entertaining there seem to be at least two different plays here competing with each other. This schizophrenia is partly a result of how the play has been deliberately structured, with an end-of-Act-One twist that sends the story into a completely different direction after the interval, but it's partly in terms of tone and pace, which never quite find their level. Lia (Julie Graham! From Bonekickers!) and Nick (Richard Clothier) are a middle-class couple whose son disappeared in the Far East at around the time of a terrorist attack there. They've never had confirmation that he died and so are in a sort of limbo. There's some good dialogue and when the story is allowed to move on this is involving, but for the first act especially, Stevenson is prone to putting her ideas forward through Lia making lengthy, uninvolving speeches.
The second half improves with the arrival of a new character when the play shifts more into the familiar thriller territory of a stranger being invited to live in the house, one who seems vulnerable but whose arrival heralds some odd goings-on. The cute Tom Weston-Jones is a great discovery in this role, going from a loveable goofiness as we first meet his character, very organically into a more sinister portrayal that leaves the audience questioning whether he's up to something, or if it's all in Lia's head. Plus he's got a
Polly Kemp as a dodgy psychic and especially Daisy Beaumont as a ruthless TV producer give strong support, plus there's Paul Freeman (a familiar face from dozens of films - Hot Fuzz most immediately springs to mind) as Lia's father, and it's strangely wonderful to hear his sonorous tones booming out "who the fuck are you?" Francis O'Connor's white box set is well utilised, and Andrzej Goulding's projections are a great example of how to use these to good effect. But in a script which takes inspiration from Chaos theory in order to look at how sometimes you can't hide in your own comfortable little world and avoid world issues, sometimes they'll come and find you, there's a frustrating sense that not all the metaphysical pieces fit together, even if the pure thriller element does.
Enlightenment by Shelagh Stevenson is booking until the 30th of October at Hampstead Theatre.