"Very occasionally, a play comes along that is so weirdly inept that you don't quite know how to respond," said Clive Davis in The Times. Were you to stumble across Penelope Skinner's "shambles" of a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, "you could put it down to an undergrad experiment". To find it in the West End – with Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James in lead roles – is baffling and infuriating, when you consider how much theatregoers will have paid to see it, many lured by the presence of two stars who are incapable of redeeming the material. Scott Thomas, playing a once-famous actress who now lives as a virtual recluse in Cornwall, "exhibits no gift for comic timing, but simply raises her voice and hopes for the best". James, as the film executive sent to extract her life story, "looks out of her depth throughout". It's an "utter embarrassment" all round.
I didn't think the performances were the problem, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. Scott Thomas is charming as the eccentric actress, who took flight from a controlling partner years ago, and who here acts out her past for the visiting executive. And James convinces as the ambitious young mother, who is herself in a toxic relationship. But neither character is properly developed and both stars are "hamstrung" by an incoherent script that speaks "its themes through exposition".
These themes arrive thick and fast, said Matt Wolf in The New York Times. Over its nearly three hours, "#MeToo, cancel culture, the tyranny of men" and many others are covered in a play that veers awkwardly between "near-slapstick" and "speechifying". Watching it is like "tumbling down a never-ending rabbit hole of bewilderment", said Fiona Mountford in The i Paper. It is "the most barking play the West End has seen in a long time".
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My suspicion is that Skinner was aiming for absurdism, said Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. Sadly, what she has ended up with is more an "assemblage of half-baked ideas and lazy conceits". The mystery is why two big name actors (and director Ian Rickson) signed up to it. "As star vehicles go, it's a car crash."
Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1 (0844-871 7627; lyonesseonstage.com). Until 23 December. Rating *: stars reflect the overall quality of reviews and our own independent assessment (5 stars=don't miss; 1 star=don't bother)
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