Somewhere in this production is a really fine play trying to get out. I saw it in the preview week, with the actors still clearly finding their feet. No doubt they will get there. The key issue regarding its success relates to how this carefully calibrated tale is directed: exactly what is the correct pitch for what is essentially a two-hander about marriage and mental illness, with the title something of a red herring.
The play’s premise, established in the opening scene, is that Douglas has walked out on his family and his wife. Julie and their son, Thomas, have no idea where he is or when he’s coming back. In contrast to the set design’s rigorous (and predictable) naturalism, the play retains an almost absurdist opaqueness. We’re never told exactly how long Douglas has been missing. When he does re-appear, the details of his time away are revealed gradually, piece by piece. Is the marginal world he claims to have joined real? Or is it just an invention of his troubled (haunted) mind?
Penhall’s most famous play, Blue/Orange dealt astutely with mental illness. As Haunted Child unfolds, the degree of Douglas’s un-hingedness becomes ever clearer. The writing handles this beautifully; the layers are peeled away over the course of a couple of days. Douglas hovers on the brink of normality, the normality of marriage and fatherhood. In a Europe where despair seems to be nagging at the heels of whole swathes of society, having a good job and a nice home is no longer sufficient to ward off the demons, and Penhall’s portrayal of Douglas feels frighteningly prescient.
It’s the exploration of this tension within Douglas, between the lure of a kind of asocial madness and the comforts of societal norms, which should elevate the play beyond being merely an enjoyable, entertaining piece of storytelling. However, at times it feels as though the direction is working against the play’s subtler instincts. Whilst there’s a great deal of humour in the text, it felt as though there was a tendency to overplay the laughs, thereby dissipating the play’s tension and undercutting its power. Like his son, the audience needs to be genuinely spooked by the transformation in this strange, sad man. He’s Banquo’s ghost writ large, the spectre in our never-ending festival of consumer delights, the man who would renounce the world and all its ersatz, earthly pleasures.