The Royal Court have missed a trick with their marketing for Joe Penhall‘s Haunted Child. Given the tepid reviews the marquee outside should simply scream “See Ben Daniels drink a whole bucket of salt water live on stage!”
Well that’s what he appears to do. You see him fill the bucket from the sink, pour “salt” into it, drink the lot, then rush (disappointingly) off stage to vomit leaving only his bare feet visible as he retches. Yes, there are rather a lot of unclad feet on display here too.
But you have to feel for Ben Daniels (and it’s the only moment you do) having to perform the stunt. It’s a big ask of any performer. Calling it beyond the “pail” would only provide another disappointing gag.
Daniels’ Douglas has gone AWOL from his wife Julie (Sophie Okonedo) and bed-wetting young son Thomas (Jude Campbell at this performance) who don’t know whether he’s dead or alive. Has he had a mid-life crisis or a complete breakdown? Turns out he’s been living with a strange religious cult but has returned (almost) unbeknownst to his family and has been hiding in the attic.
When he suddenly comes down Julie’s a tad shocked, possibly because he seems to be affecting “the Mackenzie Crook look”. He is a completely changed person and it’s not unlike those moments in Coronation Street when a character disappears upstairs for some time and eventually comes down played by a new actor. Think Tracy Barlow with a touch of John Darwin.
Thomas takes it in his stride but Julie is understandably a little pissed off especially when he tells her about his group’s doctrines, which include eating boiled eggs, drinking buckets of salt water and eschewing music and sex. Happily though, masturbation is tolerated in new recruits. What a relief, as Douglas is clearly a tosser.
Things get worse as he appears to be putting his new “family” before his own, tries to impose his new values and attempts to persuade them to come and join him; Julie’s understandably not too keen. And boy does she (and the audience) have to hear about the cult. And thereby lies the problem.
Top marks to Okonedo and Daniels for doing what they can with their rather unsympathetic characters. The latter is saddled with having to expound an awful lot of crap and appear convinced by it. It’s always good to see a Bunny Christie set and director Jeremy Herrin squeezes what tension he can from the premise, but there’s lashings of tedium as we listen to Douglas banging on about his new life.
Penhall seems concerned with importance of family (which is about as seasonal as this show gets), the dangers of certain beliefs and with religious fundamentalists in particular. And is Douglas mending one of the family’s appliances in Act 2 or could he be making something more sinister? Hard to care.
But at least Haunted Child might be signifying a return of theatrical chundering after a spate of it in the West End a few years ago. The Whingers applaud it and will live in hope.