Right now, 2:22 A Ghost Story is the most notorious theatrical ghost story in town. It’s embarking on a national tour after a two-year run in the West End and productions in LA, Melbourne and Singapore, making it the most successful stage chiller since The Woman in Black, the Susan Hill play that ran for a whopping 33 years before closing last spring.
The secret to 2:22′s notoriety? Not just its hairpin plot twists or harrowing emotional depths, but its gasp-inducing casting choices. Its author, Danny Robins, had never written a play before, although he’d had a flurry of lockdown success with his haunting podcast The Battersea Poltergeist. So before it premiered in August 2021, Robins navigated the terrifying prospect of opening into a mid-pandemic West End by searching for a star. According to industry publication The Stage, he asked his friends: “Who would you catch Covid for?”
Big theatre names Julia Chan, Hadley Fraser and Jake Wood were on board. But it’s singer-songwriter and Noughties golden girl Lily Allen‘s first stage appearance that really got ticket buyers excited about sharing potentially-virus-infested air with strangers again.
It felt like an event, a vote of confidence even, that Allen was gracing the West End. And she acquitted herself well – even landing herself an Olivier Award nomination – in the nervy, neurotic role of Jenny, a new mother who’s convinced her fixer-upper home is haunted, and who attempts to prove she’s right to both her husband, and to an increasingly terrified couple of mates who’ve come round for dinner.
In Chekhov, she might have struggled. But this understated, girl-next-door role felt perfect for Allen: she was able to broadly play herself, her forehead knotting with anxiety under the signature blunt fringe as she navigated a twisty-turny ghost story shot through with the screams of London foxes.
“She’s confident on stage, and although she won’t be troubling Judi Dench in terms of vocal modulation any time soon, she gives this slightly chilly play an attractive, winning and warm centre,” wrote Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, while i’s Gwendolyn Smith praised her “slightly stiff” performance for nonetheless capturing “the simultaneous fury and vulnerability of a woman whom no one will believe”.
The reviews were warm, but not quite glowing. It’s pretty rare for new plays (even brilliant, starry ones) to last more than a few months. And few critics in attendance on 2:22‘s celeb-heavy press night would have imagined their reviews would be splashed across the facade of a West End theatre over two years and six cast changes later. But 2:22 feels indestructible, its ticket-selling foundations as solid as the haunted house it centres on is rickety.
Allen’s departure from the cast that November would have sunk other shows, but undeterred, 2:22‘s producers embarked on a risky game of casting madlibs. Giovanna Fletcher, the presenter, podcaster and winner of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! took over as Jenny, in a decision that was mildly surprising to anyone who was expecting Allen to be replaced by a more established stage actor.
Soon, that sensation of surprise became altogether familiar. In May 2022, Doctor Who companion Mandip Gill took on the role of Jenny, alongside Harriy Potter actor Tom Felton. In August 2022, Love Island‘s Laura Whitmore took over as Jenny. Then in December 2022, things got even weirder as Cheryl, Girls Aloud star and telly talent show judge extraordinaire, did her stint of paranormal service.
Could she act? Well, kind of: which arguably shouldn’t be enough for an acting role on the West End in a straight play (at least outside panto season, when everyone’s critical faculties are softened by rivers of mulled wine). Still, with The Sun reporting that she earned £1,000 per show, 2:22‘s producers clearly bargained that her box office wattage was worth any dent she might put in the show’s credibility.
Press night was a wild clash of thespy tradition and pop culture, providing incongruous sights like Michelle Walsh almost tripping over a discarded Lime bike in her spike heels as she entered the theatre, and Denise Van Outen sweltering in a floor length white fur coat in the stuffy foyer. Since then, Made in Dagenham actor Jaime Winstone, One Tree Hill star Sophia Bush, and Frankie Bridge from The Saturdays have all put in a shift.
Right now, 2:22 is the closest thing that London’s West End has to a meme. “Get your guesses in,” teased the production’s official account ahead of a new casting announcement this spring, and the comments quickly filled up with suggestions including Rebekah Vardy – imagine how fun that would be – and seasoned performer Mr Blobby.
Starring in it is starting to feel like a rite of passage for celebrities, like a stint in rehab or dating John Mayer. “I’ve been moving house on the regs, at least once a year, to avoid what has finally happened. I’ve been drafted to play Jenny in the West End’s 2:22 A Ghost Story. Could’ve made up an excuse to dodge it but they’ll know. They always know,” joked the comedian Jamie Allerton in a tweet.
Theatre world arguments about star casting bubble up reliably every few years (the previous one, in 2018, centred on YouTuber Tanya Burr’s dismal performance in Southwark Playhouse show Confidence). Each time, they follow similar lines. One side argues that star casting is an insult to the many professionally trained actors struggling for gigs, as well as being a bit tacky. The other side argues that star casting keeps theatre relevant, and brings in new audiences who’d never otherwise darken its doors.
And yes, bringing in new audiences is undeniably important. But actually keeping them interested is even more so. How many of the pop fans who flocked to see Cheryl battle her way through her first acting role will be so entranced by theatre that they’ll book for an actually good drama, like anti-cop farce The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, or gripping introspective musical A Strange Loop? It’s snobbish to say that casting untrained actors cheapens theatre, but at the same time, you’d never use actors with two left feet to bring in new crowds to football games, or tone-deaf telly presenters to bring fresh audiences to opera.
2:22‘s stunt casting would make sense if the play itself was a reflection on fame in some way – if the presence of an unlikely star added to the drama. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s works have been performed all over the world (most recently Nassim, at Edinburgh International Festival), using star casting in a powerful way. Soleimanpour is unable to leave his native country, so a slough of household names from Ken Loach to Whoopi Goldberg have stepped in to read his words, while his own voice is censored.
On the lighter end of the spectrum, casting former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger in the 2014 West End revival of Cats was a surprisingly great choice: as well as having undeniable singing chops, her showbiz past added valuable poignancy to the story of aging glamourpuss Grizabella.
But 2:22 is a far less natural star vehicle. It is about normal people (Jenny is a teacher) in extraordinary circumstances. If the actors aren’t up to the job, it starts to feel more and more like a fairground ghost train, its thrills delivered by sudden blackouts or a ghoulish soundtrack of shrieks, its inhabitants pulled along by clanking machinery.
The title of 2:22 comes from its recurring motif: something creepy happens every night at the same time, with clockwork predictability. Thus far, its casting choices have had the same inevitability – splashy, unlikely celebrity faces splashed on posters decked with reviews of other, probably better versions of its ever-changing cast. So it’s genuinely refreshing to see it set off on a national tour with experienced, trained actors Louisa Lytton (EastEnders) and Charlene Boyd (River City) in tow.
Still, imagine if Rebekah Vardy had picked up the phone.