The Glow at the Royal Court review: A messy time-travel conundrum
Were playwright Alistair McDowall and I to go for a pint, I think we’d get on pretty well. Having seen three of his plays to date – Pomona, X and now The Glow – we seem to share a love of lo-fi sci-fi, dystopian fiction and Lovecraftian horror. Each of his plays have tickled that part of my brain that wants theatre to muscle in on the territory of genre movies, embracing tropes rather than forever trying to transcend them.
And each of his plays have left me frustrated to the point of genuine anger that he can’t resist throwing everything including the cosmic kitchen sink at his audiences, underlining every metaphor and expounding upon the nature of absolutely everything in a way that overshadows all the good work.
The Glow begins in a forgotten cell in an underground Victorian asylum. A woman is searching by torchlight for a subject to help her perform the dark rituals she hopes will usher in a new age of spiritualism. But what begins as a spooky parlour-room piece soon spirals into a time-travelling epic with stops in 1970s Wales, medieval Europe and the prehistoric plains.
Like McDowell’s previous work, The Glow prides itself on being difficult to pin down, resulting in a tonal and narrative hodge-podge that’s one minute straight-up horror, the next comedy, then philosophical drama, with only a wide-eyed ernestness tying the disparate elements together.
It’s a four-hander that, in Ria Zmitrowicz and Fisayo Akinade, counts two of the most talented rising stars of the British stage among its cast. But despite being well-acted throughout, the actors are frequently upstaged by heavy-handed projection and unnecessary parlour tricks. In its defence, it’s all incredibly stylish, especially a set made up of geometric shapes that shift and reconfigure when you’re not looking.
The Glow is nothing if not ambitious, and there are moments when it threatens to coagulate into something quite profound, but by the end I was thoroughly defeated, convinced that while McDowell and I may share an appreciation for the same source material, we have wildly different palates for theatre.