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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Haunted Child
Royal Court Theatre   Winter 2011-2012

Joe Penhall tries to do a bit too much in this deceptively dense and textured play, touching on several subjects without doing full justice to any. The play ultimately succeeds more than not, but it might have been much stronger if he had chosen to focus on one of its strands. 

The titular child is upset and confused because odd things are going on around him and he is trying to make sense out of them within the limits of his ability to understand. His father has disappeared, and mother can't offer any explanations or reassurances. And then father reappears, radically changed in ways that confuse and frighten both mother and son. 

We slowly learn his story: in a moment of personal crisis he fell in with a religious cult – the standard absolute leader, break ties with the world, give us all your money, spiritual and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo sort. Out on a brief furlough whose dark purpose will eventually be revealed, he resists his wife's attempts to reconnect and tries to lure her back with him. 

The wife, in turn, vacillates between anger, delight in his return and even, in her confusion, the temptation to believe that he has found all the answers; and the child finds his emotions and understanding being even more painfully jumbled.

Each character could have a play of his or her own, or at least have the spotlight and focus of our attention, with the others as background. The boy's story would resemble David Mamet's Cryptogram, though Mamet's child was reacting more to vague uneasiness in the adult world than to an explicitly spelled-out crisis.

The father's experience suggests an American made-for-TV 'issue movie', though making the cult convert an adult rather than the expected teenage girl adds interesting colours to the story. The mother's is potentially the most original and rich, exploring the experience of the one doing the best she can to hold things together while dangerously open to suggestions that she's not doing enough. 

All these things are here in Penhall's play, and it is to his credit that he can sketch in so much about all the characters that we sense they have more to their stories than we're seeing. But they do remain sketches, and you are likely to leave wanting to know more and feel more than you have been allowed to. 

That the actors have to play characters we're not fully being let into is a challenge, and they and director Jeremy Herrin deserve much of the credit for the degree to which the play succeeds. 

Ben Daniels manoeuvres the difficult terrain of talking absolute nonsense while convincing us that his character believes all of it and thus holding our sympathy. In some ways Sophie Okonedo has the more challenging role because her character must run a much wider range of emotions, and it is evidence of her talent that we want to know more because we believe what we see. Two boys alternate in the son's role; the one I saw seemed surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable on stage.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Haunted Child - Royal Court 2011

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