There were moments in this new play by Joe Penhall that appealed to my odd sense of humour. But I also detected a ready desire among other members of the audience to laugh at the situation which the play presents. That suggests that 'Haunted Child' might have been much more effective as a full-blown and deliberate comedy than a rather mysterious drama with the occasional humorous lines, which keeps its true meaning and intentions somewhat veiled.
'Haunted Child' is a three-hander with one of the characters being a young child, Thomas, played on this occasion by Jack Boulter. When we first meet Thomas, he has been woken by noises in the night and believes he has seen his father in the house. But his father, Douglas, has been missing for some weeks and his mother, Julie, reassures Thomas by telling him that Douglas is working away on business. Then, unexpectedly, Douglas turns up and tells Julie that he has joined some kind of cult. As details emerge, the cult seems to have strange rules and obligations which involve, among other things, having one's teeth extracted without pain-killing anaesthetic.
Having seen 'Matilda the Musical' recently, it is clear that there are highly talented child actors abroad in the big wide world. And Jack Boulter certainly has talents which include excellent timing. There is a well-executed scene where Julie is dragging Thomas upstairs to bed and her son has to cling to the arm of the sofa and then the stair rail. And there's anther well-timed scene where Douglas is telling Thomas that he (Thomas) is Douglas's dad. Otherwise, I found Jack Boulter's performance a little stilted even allowing for the complexity and challenging nature of the role. But he is well-supported by the adult actors. Sophie Okonedo is the down-to-earth mother and wife who accepts – however reluctantly - her parental responsibilities, but struggles to understand her husband's motivation in leaving his family to join a cult-like group. And Ben Daniels produces a highly convincing performance as Douglas, an intelligent technocrat who finds adult reality impossible to deal with and is thus prepared to let others dictate the course of his life, whatever the pain and cost.
So, what is this play all about? Well, you may have more luck deciphering the exact meaning here with the assistance of a sleuth of the calibre of Sherlock Holmes. I am certain it could be read in many different ways, but my best guess is that the haunted child is Douglas, who seeks to escape from the adult world of responsibility by being given unbreakable rules to slavishly follow by the cult he joins. The similarities between Thomas and Douglas are highlighted both in the middle of the play where they side against Julie's parental rules and, at the end, when they both wear fur-trimmed parkas. The difference between them, though, is that Thomas fights against rules – as most children do – but Douglas seeks comfort in them as an antidote to the responsibilities of adulthood which he finds overwhelming. Well, that is my take, which I suspect may not be the whole truth as far as the author is concerned. But, if that is the case, he has only himself to blame because it is enigmatic and inscrutable, and I still think the play would have been more powerful and engaging as a comedy-drama.
"This is a show that makes you grimace and cringe."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"A deeply disturbing picture of the way children are frequently sacrificed to adult desires."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Overall, Haunted Child is less tense, poignant and unsettling than it needs to be."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard