There’s very good reason why the vast majority of ghost stories are set in ancient, crumbling mansions back in the days when story-telling was pretty much our only avenue of escapist entertainment. Now that smart devices, snarky banter and endless discussions about kitchen conversions dominate proceedings in pretty much all social gatherings in middle-class homes across the land, ever-expanding egos and modern social mores leave little room for unwanted supernatural guests to enter the fray.
All credit to writer, broadcaster, journalist and professional paranormal powerhouse Danny Robins, then, for taking all the elements of the classic, spooky spine-tingler and dropping them into a thoroughly modern, instantly relatable contemporary backdrop. Since it hit the west end in 2021, 2:22 – initially serving as a revolving door for celebrities including Lily Allen and Cheryl Cole in leading roles – has garnered multiple awards and a cult following, with critics and audiences alike praising the slick production values, witty, fast-paced script and genuinely unanticipated, jaw-dropping twist revealed just before the digital clock flips to 2:23 (which will most definitely not be revealed here, for fear of being haunted by Robins’ lawyers).
Not only have smart young couple Jenny and Sam recently had a baby, but they’ve also embarked on fixing-up their new home in an up-and-coming area of London. Little wonder, then, that Jenny’s nerves are jangling even before odd events including hearing heavy footsteps and the sound of a man crying in baby Phoebe’s room at 2:22 every morning start to interfere with her regular routine of wallpaper-stripping, baby-feeding and wine-drinking. Her pragmatic scientist husband, however, is quick to deflect Jenny’s experiences with entirely rational, authoritative explanations. In need of a bit of light entertainment to lighten the increasingly-heavy emotional load, the couple invite Sam’s old university friend Lauren and her new partner Ben over for supper in their brand-new kitchen. As the evening rolls along, the conversation and the wine flows as the countdown to 2:22 – well, counts down. What happens next? You decide…
By putting a neurotic young mum, a slightly boorish alpha male, a wine-guzzling mental health specialist and a builder who happens to be a spiritualist together in an apparently haunted house, Robins has very successfully created a impeccably-detailed, millennial-friendly version of Scoobie-Doo. References to bang-on-trend supper menus and goats’ milk soap littered with all the prerequisite casual swearing and ongoing wrangles with Alexa that, were it not for the jump-scares (as I said, no spoilers!) and dextrous little portents of doom that punctuate proceedings, lull the audience into a false sense of recognisable security territory from the off, while the classic urban dinner party conversational boxes (upward mobility; why religion is outdated; a general disdain for your homes’ former resident’s décor; etc) are all duly ticked.
As Jenny, Louisa Lytton is entirely likeable and easy to empathise with. As if being a first-time mum in a very weird new home isn’t enough to deal with, she has to contend with her over-imperious husband (a well-balanced performance from Channel 4/Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin superstar Nathaniel Curtis) while still largely managing to maintain her own point of power. Meanwhile, Charlene Boyd is a scream (no put intended) as outspoken but clearly vulnerable psychiatrist Lauren. But it’s Joe Absolom as the superficially straightforward, charisma-free but actually rather complex local builder Ben who, at several points in the drama, subtly owns the spotlight; his powerful speech about the perils of gentrification in particular may be a tad out of context within the overall storyline, but it makes for a memorable observation on how and why the cult of the property development invasion is changing the face of the UK forever.
Directors Matthew Dunster and Isabel Marr are clearly masters of the art social dynamics, while Lucy Carter’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s soundscapes work in perfect harmony to add stunning atmospherics and multi-sensory suspense.
Despite its contemporary sensibilities, 2:22 is still best described as a properly spooky, traditional ghost story adapted to a chillingly atmospheric, modern live theatre experience, packed with the kind of disquietude that creeps under the skin and lingers for a long while after the curtain comes down. Be warned: once seen, you might never look at time in the same way again.