"Some will appreciate The Glow's time-jumping, genre-hopping ambition"Image credit/ Albert von Schrenck-Notzing

The first scene of The Glow feels like the opening of an intense psychological thriller. A pinprick of yellow light blooms in the dark. Towards the front of a bare, granite-grey stage, a lump in a dirty nightgown shifts alive. The stage is gradually revealed as a woman in Victorian dress enters, holding a candle aloft. Mrs Lyall (Rakie Ayola), self-proclaimed spiritualist medium ‘of some renown’, is here to find an empty vessel for her experiments. The shrinking lump is a nameless young woman, left to rot long ago in the deepest pits of the asylum.

What comes later, though, is not a thriller or a supernatural drama, but a time-jumping blend of historical fiction and scifi. Act 1 plays out as you might expect. Mrs Lyall adopts the young woman (Ria Zmitrowicz) into her home, naming her Sadie. Her attempt to commune with the dead takes an unexpected turn when she discovers that her newfound daughter-surrogate is channeling an other-worldly power. Completing the household is Mason, her surly son, played with a sense of humour by Fisayo Akinade, whose suspicion of Sadie proves somewhat justified.

Director Vicky Featherstone uses the grey gloom of the bare Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to her advantage, opting for a mostly propless set. Characters appear small and vulnerable against slabs of stone that move in and out to form the rooms of the house.

“Fans will be won over by its impressive visual design and beguiling unconventionality”

True to its name, The Glow boasts striking lighting design. Early scenes are lit by shaky candlelight as Sadie navigates the dark passageways of the Lyall house. Candles and torches are the main light sources for much of the play, so characters are perpetually shifting in and out of the shadows. Lighting designer Jessica Hung Hang Young skilfully blends light and enveloping darkness so that much of the first act seemingly takes place in an extended night-time. Effective also are Sadie’s dream sequences - rapid-fire nature shots and abstract art projected onto the back walls, underscored by violent strings arrangements by Nick Powell.

Rakie Ayola is a standout as Mrs Lyall, by turns tender and motherly and relentlessly manipulative. Her shifting relationship with Sadie provides some of production’s most memorable moments, and Ayola plays her with the heat and gravitas that the larger-than-life role requires.

“Without the first act’s driving horror edge, the second half suffers from a lack of stakes”

But The Glow is a play of two very different halves. While tension is built up nicely in the first act, the second half begins with a dramatic change of setting and a slower pace. It’s 1348, and we’re following knight Haster (Taghg Murphy), glimpsed previously in Sadie’s dreams, as he travels with her across the country to meet his king. We leave the Lyalls and the 19th century behind, and spend the rest of the play time-jumping with Doctor Who-like speed between Sadie’s relationships with three new characters.

It’s a bold choice for a play with only forty five minutes remaining. An unfortunate consequence of the play’s ambitious high-concept is that we leave much of what was intriguing in the first act behind. The early conflicts between characters are dropped, although some attempt is made to link the acts thematically. The hesitant mother-daughter bond built between Sadie and Ellen, a lonely nurse, also played by Rakie Ayola, is touching, and nicely contrasts the manipulative parent-child dynamics earlier in the play.


Mountain View

Eidolon Review

But, without the first act’s driving horror edge, the second half tails off into a series of conversations. We drift between time zones and relationships with no obvious direction. Some will appreciate The Glow's time-jumping, genre-hopping ambition, and won over by its impressive visual design and beguiling unconventionality. Others will be left apathetic by a second half that doesn’t quite follow up on the tension developed in its first act.

The Glow plays at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs in London SW1 until Saturday 5th March.