It’s 1853 and a girl (Ria Zmitrowicz) sits alone in the dark, windowless cell of an asylum, unsure how long she’s been there or how she got there. Enter Mrs Lyall (Rakie Ayola), clutching a lamp that brings a slight wash of light to the murky stage (although you still have to squint). A “writer, social thinker and spiritualist medium of some renown”, Mrs Lyall’s been looking for an accomplice to help with her work – a “passive” woman who she can summon the spirits through. Who better than the nameless, unspeaking creature twitching before her?
Alistair McDowall’s latest offering is properly bold stuff. The Glow is an epic that presents the supernatural as a violent, yet often funny thing – but as soon as you think you’ve accepted what it’s about, the play shifts unrecognisably. A true game of two halves, it’s one of those theatre experiences that would benefit from multiple watches to dull all the head scratching.
An electric performer, Ayola imbues Mrs Lyall – a self-proclaimed “prominent woman” – with both delusion and darkness. There’s a lilting, sing-song quality to her voice that switches in seconds as she makes it crystal clear that she will be obeyed, thank you very much. Mrs Lyall’s abilities are treated with scepticism by her son Mason (a superbly surly Fisayo Akinade) and, initially, by us. “Parents traditionally don’t use their children in demonic rituals,” he says, the eye roll audible in his voice.
But as Mrs Lyall uses the girl (whom she names Sadie) in her attempted conjurings, it becomes clear that something is different. Sadie never eats or sleeps and begs not to do the ritual again, haunting visions of flowing lava and fire projected on the walls. It’s these designs and the lighting that are the undeniable star of the show, Jessica Hung Han Yun playing with extremes of brightness, dark and shadow throughout. Often the only light comes from a single hand-held lamp, a flaming torch, or the eerie glow in Sadie’s captivating palm. The walls move around her at a pace so lethargic, it leaves you wondering if you’re the one seeing things.
In Act II, The Glow morphs into something new. Left behind are Mrs Lyall and the 1850s – now, it’s a time-travelling adventure spanning from 300,000 BC to 1999. Sadie (who now goes by Brooke) links them all, shifting between the eras alongside mediaeval knights, drop-out university students and a sweet Welsh nurse. She never ages, never dies.
On paper, bringing in multiple timelines should expand McDowall’s already unusual world. But the tone is closer to a more convoluted Doctor Who adventure and lacks the drive of the fast-paced first half. Sadie/Brooke can now speak for herself and her monologues are beautifully crafted mixtures of prose and poetry. But as her rabid energy is replaced with weariness (given she’s jumping across the fabric of time, we’ll let her off for that), the character loses that initial spark. Unfortunately, so does the show and the two acts remain hard to reconcile.
‘The Glow’ runs at the Royal Court until 5 March