“I’m not having an affair.  It’s better than that …”

(Haunted Child’s Douglas, played by Ben Daniels)

 

Haunted Child is the latest offering to the Royal Court from Joe Penhall.  Sadly, this Jeremy Herrin directed three hander falls rather short of expectation.  Setting itself up as a family drama, a young boy’s night-time visions of intruders are given substance when his father, Douglas (Ben Daniels), returns home after a prolonged and mysterious absence having hidden himself (lurking around in the loft space) in the house for a couple of days before emerging dishevelled and distracted.

Julie (Sophie Okonedo), Douglas’ wife, is unsurprisingly full of questions.  Thomas (Jude Campbell on the night I attended) is just glad his father has returned and the two clearly have a close relationship, the role of doting yet unreliable dad played with pitch perfect subtlety by Daniels.

Douglas (an ex-engineer) reveals that he has been living with his “group” in an abandoned office building, practising abstinence, purging with salt water and surviving on the soul food that is boiled eggs and bananas, all the while working towards a method of reconciling science and religion to create a super religion.  Why should the two doctrines be mutually exclusive?  Why should scientific exploration and religious discovery be set in conflict?  Imagine if these two belief systems were brought into harmony …

They aren’t.  In fact, having spouted his group’s manifesto, none of this is explored or mentioned again.  Similarly, Douglas’ epiphany that his child is infact his dead father (a reference to reincarnation there, in case you hadn’t noticed) is a glancing episode that touches at the surface of what could be a fascinating chronicle of the insidious manipulation of a vulnerable individual by a corrupt organisation masquerading as an enlightened religion and the impact this has on a tight family unit.  Instead we are subject to a series of superficial protestations of sincerity and commitment to his new way of life from Douglas and half hearted pleas for him to regain his sanity from Julie.

We are shown a very haunted adult, not the child of the title.  Underneath the trite battle of beliefs that ensues as Okonedo’s Julie tries to convince Daniel’s Douglas to abandon the group for her and their son, we watch as the history of a vulnerable individual emerges. Douglas is manipulated at once by the pseudo-Buddhist cult he has been living with and by his wife who is not fully capable of rational argument so resorts to seduction and a night of passion to try and win him over.

This play is very difficult to take too seriously though I must admit, I am not sure if we are meant to.  Julie is a one dimensional character which perhaps explains why I failed to see any substance in Okonedo’s performance.  She is alternately flippant and incredulous but always unconvincing.  Daniels, by contrast, delivers a hugely sympathetic Douglas: conflicted, in physical and mental turmoil yet full of humanity.  Go along if only to see this very nice piece of acting but expect nothing more than ultimately mediocre content, full of easy clichés and interesting themes which are raised then summarily abandoned as though by a restless, hurried writer.

 

Haunted Child by Joe Penhall

Royal Court, London

Until 14th Jan 2012