Shelagh Stephenson's Ancient Lights does not so much blend clever, media-savvy contemporary comedy with thoughtful musings on identity as plonk the two aspects of the play down side by side and hope we don't see the join. Of the characters she brings together for Christmas in an isolated Northumberland "big house", it is entirely their stereotypical side which gets the laughs, entirely their respective individualities which provide food for thought.
Joanne Pearce's high-powered PR Bea; Gwyneth Strong's hard-bitten, soft-centred, innocently moralising TV reporter Kitty (Bea's best friend); Dermot Crowley's engaging Irish novelist Tad (Bea's lover); Don McManus's childishly solipsistic Hollywood funny-man Tom (an old college chum); Sheridan Smith's vacuous, fame-hungry Joni (Bea's teenage daughter); Ruth Gemmell as Tom's documentary-maker girlfriend Iona, who sees camcorder footage rather than life... all are comic types (with Joni's character as written never transcending two-dimensionality, and Iona struggling to get even that far), and the comedy largely runs on rails. Even when these types are straightforwardly subverted – as we find out the truth about Tad's Celtic origins, or about Tom's jailbait sex scandal – the laughs flow freely along the same straight lines, with platitudinous satires upon the fame machine and what it does to those involved with it or fed into it.
For Stephenson's play is at its impressive best not when commenting (as per all its pre-publicity) on "the nature of celebrity", but upon that of identity itself, how we define ourselves in relation to others; it just so happens that the principal Others here are The Media and The Public At Large. Its most potent aspects are those relating to Tad, who becomes our viewpoint figure simply because he is the character least involved with or eager for actual fame. When his dual identity emerges, Stephenson shows us not just the dichotomy between the man himself and his public persona, but also the complexities of relationship with his semi-estranged father and with the newly enlightened Bea. The spooky story he tells of the "fetch", the ghost of a living man, derives its horror from the idea of confronting not one's illusion, as with all his listeners' respective public images, but from coming face to face with oneself. (The point is subtly recapitulated when Tom confronts himself on Iona's video footage, and then much less subtly when the whole tale is unnecessarily repeated as a coda to the play.)
Ian Brown directs with his customary care, but the smooth, all-round accomplished production does not quite hide the central nature of Stephenson's play: that it does more than it claims to, indeed, but less consistently than it wants to.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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