With a slowly unravelled mystery at its centre, Alistair McDowall’s uncanny new play delights in alien time fractures, the chaos of humanity and the unifying feeling of intense loneliness. This is, essentially, a rag-tag episode of Doctor Who.
We start with a Victorian medium (an elegantly cruel Rakie Ayola) attempting to contact the dead. When the woman she’s using in her experiments (a chained-up, mud-splattered stranger stolen in the night, played by Ria Zmitrowicz) appears to become possessed, the medium takes it as confirmation of her powers. But she has simply lucked out with her victim, choosing a woman whose being is connected to death and a world in-between time.
The short first half of The Glow is acutely strange. It is equal parts spooky and funny, with blunt dialogue and dreamy lighting. Vicky Featherstone’s production has great control in the way it slowly feeds us information, toying with the confusion it creates as myth and history collide. As we gradually learn more about the woman, Merle Hensel’s brutalist set shifts: the walls close in, time contorts, and the characters begin to glitch and overlap. “Like static,” a character played by the wonderfully comic Fisayo Akinade says, talking about the spirit world. “We’re wrapped around them.”
As well being unnerving, The Glow is, for a long time, unmoving. The projected landscapes with dates in bold type, spanning from the end of the 20th century back to 500,000BC, are impressive but synthetic and cold. The temperature changes when Ayola returns as retired nurse Ellen in the 1990s, her character bursting with warmth towards the strange woman on her doorstep. Suddenly the play swells, and McDowall lets love seep in.
Not everything works: a knight’s underdeveloped quest slows the action, although his presence allows an entertaining scene where a baffled Ellen patches him up after a sword fight, trying not to ask too many questions.
Sci-fi is too rarely done on stage but here McDowall has chosen the perfect medium. How better to tell a story about the perils of immortality and the fear of carrying on alone than through an art form built for impermanence, with stories that can live longer than we do?
At the Royal Court theatre, London, until 5 March.