Review: Force Majeure, Donmar Warehouse - laughs, oddness and is the staging right for the space?
Review: The Forest, Hampstead Theatre - marriage, masks and our darker side

Review: The Glow, Royal Court - mysterious, curious and perplexing

Alistair McDowall's The Glow at the Royal Court is a play I've had to ponder - a lot - and I still don't have any firm conclusions.

The Glow  Royal Court Theatre  Ria Zmitrowicz  Rakie Ayola Photo Manuel Harlan
The Glow, Royal Court Theatre: Ria Zmitrowicz and Rakie Ayola. Photo Manuel Harlan

It is why my immediate thoughts on leaving the theatre were the staging and, in particular, the lighting design - which was stunning. It was something tangible to mentally grasp, but I'll come back to that.

The first half of the play is set in Victorian England. The mood is gothic: dark corners, shadows, ghostly figures and candles.

Mrs Lyall (Rakie Ayola), a spiritualist, bribes a porter at an asylum to let her have a woman (Ria Zmitrowicz) with no memory to use as a conduit for spirits. She sets the woman up in her son Mason's room (Fisayo Akinade), much to his disgust.

She is kind to her, albeit with selfish intent. She wants to be the first to reanimate a human and the woman's lack of memories or identity make her the perfect vessel.

But the woman is far more than Mrs Lyall could ever conceive. Her returning memories are strange and ancient, like the soldier (Tadhg Murphy) who chases her in them.

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The Glow, Royal Court, Tadhg Murphy and Ria Zmitrowicz. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The second half of the play is a time-hop back and forth across centuries and millennia, constantly pursued by those who want to destroy what they don't understand, often in the most brutal and violent ways. Or they want to steal her power or in more recent times unravel her mystery.

What is she, what does she represent?

She doesn't eat, drink or sleep. She transcends time reappearing, as a failed history student observes, as an image in art through the ages. She has a glow.

At first, I saw her as a Joan of Arc figure. Then I wondered, briefly, if she was a metaphor for women in a patriarchal society.

Does she represent humanity's evolution or lack of? Is she mother nature, nurturing and powerful yet constantly rejected and defiled?

Does she represent an ultimately futile pursuit for connection or innate tribalism and fear of otherness? Or is it about what existence means, what is important and ultimately understood - or misunderstood?

I may be barking up completely the wrong tree with all of these things. The only thing I'm sure about is I don't have any firm conclusions and maybe that is the intention: You take away what you bring, whatever that might be.

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The Glow, Royal Court Theatre: Ria Zmitrowicz. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This is why my immediate response when I did my 60-second review on Instagram was to latch onto the staging and lighting. It was something I could understand.

The set is plain, concrete walls that move to change the shape and size of space and act as the backdrop for projections that transport the woman through time.

And at times, the woman herself becomes a backdrop, appearing to be in flame - which is a stunning effect. Towards the end, she stands in the middle of brightly coloured beams giving a surreal, almost cosmic feel.

There is wit and irony in some of the dialogue but also mystery. I was intrigued and perplexed by The Glow and I have no idea what rating to give it. 

Curious to know what you thought if you've seen it.

The Glow, Royal Court Theatre

Written by Alistair McDowall

Directed by Vicky Featherstone

Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including an interval.

Booking until 5 March, for more information and tickets head to the Royal Court website.

COVID SAFETY: I saw this only a day after 'plan B' measures had been lifted. In a pre-performance email, the theatre requested that people take a lateral flow and wear a mask. There were no checks or reminders at the theatre and just over 50% of the audience were wearing a face covering.

Other Alistair McDowall plays I've seen:

X, Royal Court - promises turn to dwindling interest

Pomona, National theatre - Dystopian, fantasy-reality, thriller