Julie Graham in Enlightenment

Edward Hall takes the reigns as Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre by directing a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. What is billed as a “chilling modern mystery”, Enlightenment is more ice cubes melting in a glass without whisky – a tad wimpish and lacking any real kick than that of a chilling mystery.

A young 20 year old backpacker called Adam has been missing for 3 months, his mother Lia and step-father Nick await anxiously for the phone to ring, a sighting somewhere, or just the dreading words of “he is dead”. When Adam turns up with memory loss somewhere in the far east, there is jubilation at his return, but all is not as it should be. (Cue dramatic music). Adam isn’t really Adam, and instead there is a young man who thinks he is Adam with the real Adams passport suffering from memory loss. Luckily Stephenson’s play isn’t as complicated as that last sentence, but I almost wish it was to at least leave me guessing the next step, instead this mystery is at times a bit of a farce

Whilst Tom Weston-Jones as the slightly bemused and sinister Adam fulfills his role as a young man of many different sides, switching from confused and innocent to reckless and violent seamlessly, there is little to be said of the other cast members. It is not that I am questioning their acting abilities but Julie Graham as Lia and Richard Clothier as Nick just failed to convince me that they were anything other than characters attempting to express emotions within a play. In fact, little can be said for the entire first half where the action shifts between comical farce and melodrama without actually going anywhere at all. Hall handles the text well, but Stephenson’s dialogue leaves us circling around expressionless emotions instead of driving the narrative through the grief that clearly these characters should have been feeling.

Thankfully the second half is worth returning for, and whilst it doesn’t pull Enlightenment entirely out of the abyss of mechanical acting, it does begin to reveal a series of twists and character developments. Enlightenment almost doesn’t need the first act at all – regardless of setting up characters, perhaps Hall should have dived us as the audience into the deep end and hoped we could figure the rest out.

Aside from Stephenson’s poor narrative, there are some delights in Enlightenment. Whilst not to everyones taste, the is much to be said for Francis O’Connor streamlined white stage design. The auditorium of the theatre blends effortless onto the stage, where furniture appears from the floor to set Lia’s study. As Enlightenment draws steadily on, the stage loses props, and furniture until nothing but the white walls and flooring are left echoing a mental insitution. Who is mad though? ‘Adam’ the loss son, or Lia, the mother desperate to find love in someone who mimics her son. Aside from looking nice, and offering some metaphors for the plays context, O’Connor’s design seems to hinder Hall in his direction slightly. The cast take to standing around, laying or sitting on the floor – never truly looking comfortable in the white room.

There are some impressive moments of projection work by Andrezj Goulding who uses the bare white walls of O’Connor’s design to mimic the outside world, or indeed an elusive male character surrounded in fog and blurred from vision. It’s a touching element to add ‘mystery’ to the Adam lost somewhere in the world, but sadly does little to help with the dramatic action.

Whilst Enlightenment was a daring step for Hall to make within his new position as Artistic Direction of The Hampstead Theatre, I’m sure there is more and better work to be explored later in the autumn season. I’ve not lost all hope in his, nor The Hampstead Theatre’s work quite yet… but my advice: skip the first act and enjoy the mystery of the second.

Enlightenment is playing at The Hampstead Theatre until 30th October. For more information and to book tickets, see their website.