On one level, I think Haunted Child tries to do too much in a 2 hour period tackling male mid life crisis; the end of carefree youth and the beginning of parenthood and parental responsibility; depression and going mad; and the lack of a constructive relationship between science and religion. On another level, taken as a whole, this is a baffling piece of work and it doesn’t help that the relation between the title and the actual play is not, if at all, easily distinguishable.
Douglas walks out of his wife, Julie, and their young son, Thomas, to join a cult. Julie has no idea where he is and appeases Thomas, who misses his dad, with excuses that his dad is busy with work but will return once he is finished. To her surprise, in the middle a night, she discovers him in their home – apparently he’d turned up a day earlier and was hiding in the loft. She sets out to understand what has happened to Douglas, only to find that he is deeply entrenched in this cult group and is ready to abandon his family and everything else he held dear in his life for them. It is evident that he is going through some sort of a mid-life crisis except that, instead of affairs and cars, he has sought refuge with a cult whose motives are dubious.
Douglas regurgitates what this cult group has taught him, mixing various elements of Hindu metaphysics and Buddhism with some new age thinking which has something to do with the evils of technology. He is so earnest in his recital of these mantras that he sounds as if he is verging on manic depression leading to madness. But, as a woman, I couldn’t feel sorry for him and I would have kicked him out much sooner than Julie who listens, reasons and pleads with her husband. Quite why sensible Julie doesn’t ring the police and report this dubious cult is puzzling.
The play lacks some credibility but, ultimately, it is the cast which persuades you to stay with it to the end. Sophie Okonedo gives us a nuanced performance as Julie who mostly keeps her emotions in check in order to protect her son and her marriage while rallying her husband to come back to them and pick up his family life with them. Many women I know would have screamed and shouted and thrown things at Douglas but Okonedo’s Julie puts up a dignified resistance to his impractical and irresponsible actions. Ben Daniels gives us a complex and layered Douglas which helps to sustain our interest in his character for the duration of the play, even if some of us find the self-indulgent mid life crisis theme tiresome. Two child actors take turns to play the young boy Thomas on alternative days which is just as well as this role is quite demanding to ask of any young child. On the evening I went, Jack Boulter gave an admirable performance as Thomas. Where possible, the stage directions are helpful in putting the spotlight on the adults, taking the pressure off the young lad.
I am still unsure what this play is saying to us except, if the ending is any clue, that life is hopeless. Paraphrasing one of Douglas’ lines, the play’s conclusion suggests that these characters will continue ‘to lurch from crisis to crisis’ and we can be sure that nothing ‘will improve’ and that they will have ‘no great hopes to sustain’ them. But we have to get to the end to get this bleak message.
Until 14 January 2012.
Written by Joe Penhall.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin.
Performance time: 2 hours with an interval.