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A CurtainUp London London Review
Haunted Child

But - if we are going to die anyway - what’s the point? — Child
Haunted Child
Jack Boulter as Thomas and Ben Daniels as Douglas
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Joe Penhall’s first play since 2007 gets its premiere at London Royal Court with Jeremy Herrin directing and starring Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels as a married couple living in London with their primary school age son. Except that isn’t where the play starts. Thomas (Jack Boulter or Jude Campbell) is asking about his father who has been missing for weeks and weeks. Thomas, who is disturbed by his father’s absence, says he has seen his father standing on the stairs. Julie (Sophie Okonedo) explains that his father is away, working abroad, concealing from the child that Douglas (Ben Daniels) has disappeared without a trace.

Douglas makes a terrifying entrance. He is thin, haggard, unkempt, his suit is crumpled, his hair all over the place and worse, half his top teeth are missing. He has been hiding in the loft for a day, having let himself in with his house keys. His wife is brimful of questions and incomprehension.

Where has he been? Why did he just leave like that? She called the police. No one knew where he was or what had happened to him. Not his employer, not his brother or mother or friends. The police thought it most likely that he had run off with another woman.

Slowly it emerges that Douglas has found a new spirituality. He is now part of what he calls “my group”, a community of like minded people aiming for enlightenment, practising denial, abstinence and chastity and he has come home to realise half the value of their home.

There is no actress who can translate the puzzlement and pain that Sophie Okonedo conveys. The rush of questions, the frustration at his answers, if not actually evasive, they are enigmatic and without comprehension. Further she does not have her loving husband and Thomas’s father back but someone she does not recognise, who only eats a banana and a boiled egg daily and drinks a bucket of salt water to make him vomit, a purgative ritualistic act of cleansing which he shows us onstage. He tries to explain this new found “religion”, a “further than Buddhist” life of increased spirituality, but Julie and we, the audience, are not convinced that he has been anything other than brainwashed into submission.

The playwright is obviously commenting on the emptiness which people find in life with economic pressures and materialistic values but Douglas puts this group before the interests of his disturbed child and his resisting wife. We get a clue when he talks about the dental work, the extreme pain and conjecture that this has been used to change his thought patterns, his normal reasoning, his sense of responsibility. It is an extreme, harrowing mid life crisis and Ben Daniels shows the full spectrum of a tender husband who has become a bigoted and violent fanatic.

Bunny Christie has set the play in the kitchen of a suburban house, stairs leading off upstairs for the child to come down, in the middle of night terrors, as he imagines what has happened to his father with a child’s perception. For instance he thinks his father is dead after his mother said they were haunted by something and the boy interpreted this to mean that there was a ghost. I saw Jack Boulter play Thomas, a fine performance. Thomas is overjoyed to see his father, childlike and unaware of the significance of the finer points of his conversion and his belief in reincarnation. Together Thomas and his father form a team and Julie is left out.

The play seemed to me to have many more than three actors in it, so full up was it with ideas and debate about what it is that we are searching for and how we find it and the price paid. And yes all my sympathy was with the wife and mother. Joe Penhall is a master of penetrating and natural dialogue, sometimes comic as Julie reacts to the stranger in her home. As she says, “We thought you were dead! In many ways . . . this is worse.

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Haunted Child
Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Starring: Sophie Okonedo, Ben Daniels, Jack Boulter/Jude Campbell
Designed by Bunny Christie
Lighting: Jean Kalman
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 14th January 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th December 2011 performance at The Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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