Lily Allen marries David Habour in cute Las Vegas ceremony

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Focussing all eyes on Lily Allen for this new play is not just stunt casting, it also slyly pulls focus from all the clues that are slickly scattered elsewhere throughout this fitfully entertaining spooky mystery. The former chart-topper plays terrified middle-class wife Jenny, convinced a weeping ghost is haunting her newborn baby’s bedroom every night at precisely 2.22am. Her pompous academic husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) belittles her fears so she persuades their dinner guests – his old university chum, psychiatrist Lauren (Julia Chan) and her new boyfriend, working-class handyman Ben (EastEnders’ Jake Wood) – to stay through to the early hours. 

Lily Allen has definite presence and handles a demanding role that requires her to be as twitchy physically as she is emotionally – constantly moving, fussing, cooking and tidying on the way to a meltdown.

There are moments of palpable emotion, especially towards the end. But from her opening scream as she stumbles over a toy on the floor, it appears her job is to keep us on edge with the stridently clipped and brittle voice and mannerisms of an adult Hermione Granger. More often than not, it put me on edge. It feels like she was told to sell the hysteria from the start, but this leaves her nowhere to go, except ever more shrill. This is exacerbated by the delivery of every single line like it is an urgent announcement, with a relentless upkick in intonation. With the cast fully miked, there is no need to project every word to the rafter.

READ MORE: Review: Sir Ian McKellen in Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor is a valiant but muddled experiment

Fraser’s Sam is similarly overblown in his relentlessly irritating superiority. We all know the type but there must be more to him than that, surely? Crucially, any purported love and connection between the central couple never convinces.

Wood, meanwhile, impresses. He can do wide-boy geezer in his sleep but he lands every easy laugh with effortless flair and then layers in coiled resentment and rage with unexpected vulnerability. He is matched by a measured performance from Chan, who, alone, is given a character that has quieter moments. It highlights how little else on stage is given space to breathe.

This is reflected in a play that too often confuses pace for tension, character tropes for texture. Suspense works best with creepingly quieter moments between the scares but even the fake fog outside the kitchen doors overdoes it, wildly swirling like dry ice at a disco. Tension is ramped up by a clanking ‘horror’ soundscape punctuated by the repeated screams of fornicating foxes outside. Some audience members certainly responded audibly to the repeated use of a loud shriek and flashing red lights at the end of every single scene. After the first time, I found it predictable and wearying.

Playwright Danny Robbins has a background in radio plays and paranormal podcasts with a firm, soap opera grip on propelling a plot. The potshots at middle-class gentrification (pithily summed up as the type of people who have “expensive doors and cheap Albanians” to do the work) land nicely. I was less impressed with the play’s self-satisfied bleeding heart over displaced working-class communities or the attempt to somehow crowbar in a comparison between the plight of refugees and ghosts making the perilous crossing to visit the living.

Robbins nicely red herrings us throughout by keeping the focus on the personal dynamics. I was pleased that I didn’t see the big twist coming, even if it has been famously done far better elsewhere. But I can’t help feeling this would work more effectively on the radio, leaving the audience space to imagine the chills themselves.

Ultimately, like all the best ghost stories, the human four-way dynamic on stage has the potential to be much more interesting than the phantom framework. Frustratingly, even the big reveal rushed frantically by leaving the characters and the audience no time to reflect and react.

2:22 A GHOST STORY IS AT THe NOEL COWARD THEATRE TO OCTOBER 16

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