“We dream big,” says a no-nonsense film executive early in “Lyonesse,” the starry, if overstuffed, new play that opened Wednesday night at the Harold Pinter Theater, in London. And so, too, does this West End debut from Penelope Skinner, a British playwright whose works have long enlivened small theaters on both sides of the Atlantic.
The themes arrive thick and fast across nearly three hours: #MeToo, cancel culture, the tyranny of men and many others. But not even Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas, the production’s commercial draws, can transform the scattershot material into a coherent whole.
It takes courage to open a new play in the West End without a previous run somewhere else, but “Lyonesse” whimpers where it should roar. You emerge less enlightened than bewildered at the inability of so much talent — including the show’s usually excellent director, Ian Rickson — to come up with something better.
James shoulders the bulk of the narrative, playing Kate, an eager-beaver movie exec whose habit of continually apologizing doesn’t inspire confidence in her judgment.
Her boss, Sue (Doon Mackichan), nonetheless has enough faith in Kate to send her on a mission to Cornwall, southern England, where she meets Elaine (Scott Thomas), an actress who has emerged from a decades-long hibernation and wants to tell her story on film.
The women’s first encounter isn’t especially auspicious, though Elaine’s entrance certainly catches the eye. Waddling onstage in Wellington boots, a swimming cap and a fur coat worn over a swimsuit, she suggests an English seaside equivalent to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” She also comes bearing an ax that she’s been using to chop up furniture, and you feel from her bizarre behavior that she could put it to other uses, as well.
“It is time for me to step into the light,” Elaine announces with a flourish, and at first, you think she will send Kate packing, frustrated by this new arrival’s flightiness and her inability to light a fire. Instead, the two bond over a shared desire to take ownership of their lives. Elaine is reckoning with the fallout of a brutal relationship with a now-dead film director, just as Kate, a generation younger, chafes at the control exerted by her own film director husband, Greg (James Corrigan, in the play’s lone male role).
Freed from her own difficult relationship, Elaine encourages the impressionable Kate to leave Greg and start afresh. But any hope of a clean break is dashed when Sue suggests that he be hired to direct the film of Elaine’s life.
Keeping an eye on these complications, and others, is Elaine’s calm neighbor and friend, Chris (Sara Powell, first-rate), a poet who develops feelings for Kate that aren’t reciprocated.
And yet the play’s tone is so wayward — near-slapstick one minute, speechifying on societal ills the next — that any focus is lost. Skinner writes tremendous parts for women, as her earlier plays “Linda” and “The Village Bike” have shown. But the principal performers in “Lyonesse” are sufficiently confounded by the gear shifts in the writing that you start to look toward the gentler presence of Chris for respite. The playwright is clearly drawn to this secondary character, too, and Chris ends the play onstage alone.
The likable James has an animated stage presence, but it’s hard to believe that a serious company would employ such a flibbertigibbet. Chattiness in both life and art can grate, and so it proves here.
Scott Thomas looks fantastic as the willfully daffy Elaine. And as a onetime film star herself, who has enjoyed a renewed career onstage, she may understand Elaine’s desire, however misguided, to put herself in the public eye once more. The role couldn’t be further from the cool, cryptic women Scott Thomas often plays, so is a welcome change of pace.
But the fact remains that the character of Elaine never rings true: She’s an amalgamation of eccentricities, most of which feel borrowed from elsewhere. For her big set piece, Scott Thomas careers about the living room of Lyonesse, her decaying house, in a wig, recounting the details of Elaine’s bruised and bruising life.
But when she later poses the question, “What if I’m no longer spellbinding?,” it feels like time for the character, and the play, to face facts.
Through Dec. 23 at the Harold Pinter Theater in London; lyonesseonstage.com.