“What does the banana do?”
Joe Penhall’s first work for the stage since 2007, Haunted Child, makes for a much different kind of festive show at the Royal Court than last year’s raucous Get Santa! and given his reputation, for plays like Blue/Orange, I was quite looking forward to this. But when the blurb on the back of the playtext starts quoting the play itself, you know there’s trouble ahead. “After attending an innocuous motivational course involving esoteric philosophy, Douglas mysteriously abandons his wife and son to ‘live in a specific, preordained way according to the tenets of a spiritual leader’.” Big words to cover up what is essentially a rather basic set-up.
Young Thomas is wetting the bed and acting up with his mother Julie as his father Douglas has gone AWOL. When Douglas suddenly resurfaces, the relief felt soon turns to dread as it becomes apparent that he has joined a ‘group’, the nature of which we slowly learn more about as he tries to impose his completely altered mindset onto his wife and child. And that’s about it. There’s a lot of talk about the effect of adults’ behaviour on their children which is nothing new, and not enough exploration into what pushed Douglas into such extreme behaviour and the seductive allure of organised cult-like groupings.
This was a preview performance so the usual caveats apply but I doubt that I would have enjoyed this play at any stage in the run if I’m brutally honest. Little colour is added into the characters to make them engaging and so once the premise has been established, the play just goes round and round the same points without providing much of revelatory interest. Ben Daniels’ brainwashed, bedraggled and bare-footed Douglas has a desperate quality which is never quite mined enough, his repetition of the mantras of a ‘better kind of life’ hinting at the nefarious practices of his new friends, but the reasons why any of this is happening are just too elusive. Jack Boulter, one of two boys covering the role of Thomas, handles the role with a tentative poise, this young person thrust awkwardly into the world of adult reality far too soon and he conveys a mightily touching relationship with Daniels, desperate to be loved by his father and willing to play along with, and seemingly forgive, anything he does or says – no matter how disturbing.
Against them is a quietly intense performance from Sophie Okonedo as Julia, whose relationship with her son is tested as his understandably frustrated line of questioning gets no easy answers, and whose marriage is clearly under severe threat. But because Penhall has chosen to have Douglas’ disappearance come out of the blue – which I suppose is how many of these things, if we’re talking about mental breaks, happen in real life, without warning – the decision to thus not explain it means the audience, along with Julia, is left wafting around for any kernel of a clue. An attempt to give Julia something of a troubled mindset as Douglas tries to win her over sticks out like a sore thumb – would friends and family not have rallied around her? – and quite frankly, her toleration of her husband’s proposed course of action just does not ring true.
So, Haunted Child was not a good experience for me. At no point did I find any member of this family interesting or care enough to want to find out their fates, and it made for a dull evening in the theatre for me. It seemed to be a popular opinion as there were seven walkouts on my row alone after the interval. I would struggle to tell you what I thought Penhall was trying to achieve with this play, what he was trying to say. Maybe others will see more in this rather nihilistic view than I did and I shall look forward to seeing what other bloggers and critics have to say about it.