As the smiling all-female cast approached in a petticoated phalanx from the back of the stage to take their bows at the end of David Foxton’s Memories of Lizzie, the audience applauded, but there was the definite feeling that we had missed something. We felt as the inhabitants of a plane would feel if they had taken their seats for an international flight, been shown the exit rows, had the oxygen masks demonstrated, watched the in-flight entertainment devices flicker on, and then been promptly asked to disembark, without actually going anywhere.
That is not to say that the aesthetic execution of the play, directed by Catherine Bell, wasn’t great: visually, there were some very effective and original tricks. The two murdered parents placed at the front of the stage, just at the nightmarishly half-seeable lower threshold of the audience’s field of vision, with faces turned away such that we could only access them through the eerily matter-of-fact eyewitness accounts of the characters, perfectly encapsulated the half-denied trauma at the play’s heart. The clever decision to cast a Lizzie (played wonderfully by the piercingly real-feeling Rachel Brady) almost one-and-a-half times taller than the rest of the cast had a literally terrific effect: she slid through the innocent frills and linen of the set like a dementor in an Alice in Wonderland costume, with all the alarming liquidity of a Hayao Miyazaki villain. This became especially enjoyable when she appeared in the final few moments of the play with a black lace funereal veil tightly coiled across her face, whose flat business-like lines, in combination with the cardboard coffin in her hands, inexplicably but undeniably evoked the image of Lizzie as an abattoir worker, cap on head, meat-box under arm.
There was one major flaw in Memories for Lizzie, an unexpected flaw given that the play is based on a real life unsolved mystery: the lack of an unknown. We came into the theatre to find a ghostly tableau of late-nineteenth century schoolgirls covered in doilies; ten minutes in, it became obvious that one of them killed her parents. The remaining twenty minutes were spent waiting for the play to end.
A second and related flaw was the play’s lack of dramatic contour. From the first, intense few lines, uttered by Lizzie with unflinching eyes aimed right at the audience’s souls, the pitch of the drama was established, and like the babbling repetition of the children’s chants sung by the little girls throughout the play, it hovered at that level with frustrating monotony. Most of the characters remained static, Lizzie got a little bit more murdery, Rachel (played very well by Emily Black) got freaked out by Lizzie’s increasing murderiness, and then suddenly the lights were out, and the cast were walking forward, smiling and bowing as if they’d taken us on a journey, when in fact we felt like we had just been shown the first chapter of an Ian McEwan novel: the characters were presented, the aesthetic was established, a definite feeling of sinister guilt was evoked, but nothing really happened.
Memories of Lizzie was a visually marvellous play, but even the best works of art become dull if you stare at them, static, for half an hour.