'The Enfield Haunting' review – this spine-tingling play features ghostly growls not heard since The Exorcist

Read our two-star review of The Enfield Haunting, starring Catherine Tate and David Threlfall, now in performances at the Ambassadors Theatre to 2 March.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Scary often means successful when it comes to the West End. Take by way of proof the decades-long tenure at the Fortune Theatre of The Woman in Black, or 2:22 A Ghost Story leapfrogging its way around one venue or another.

But the third time is not the charm for The Enfield Haunting, a bewildering muddle of a play from Paul Unwin that delayed its opening from one side of Christmas to the other and still poses far more questions than its 75 minutes are able to answer. Chief amongst them: what in heaven’s name is going on?

On paper all seems clear enough and many will recall this real-life tale from previous treatments of it, not least a 2015 TV miniseries that starred Timothy Spall in the role taken this time out by the excellent David Threlfall.

He is the main reason to catch Angus Jackson’s production, which transports us to 1970s Enfield, north London, and to the anguished home of single mum Peggy (Catherine Tate) and her three children which has apparently been invaded by a poltergeist.

Middle child Janet (Ella Schrey-Yeats) is of particular concern given her apparent possession by a spirit that has resulted in physical and vocal mayhem, including growly, guttural emanations not heard since the heyday of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Then there’s elder sister Margaret (Grace Molony), whose sweary discourse suggests a mouth in serious need of washing out with soap and who is forever racing off to the “pardonnez-moi”, aka the toilet.

Threlfall plays Maurice Grosse, the psychic phenomena expert who's spent some months visiting the imperilled home. It’s giving little away to report that Maurice has suffered a loss within his own family that prompts a connection with the besieged brood – an emotionally needy young boy, Jimmy (Noah Leggott) included – under his nightly watch. Against expectation, Maurice finds a kindred spirit of sorts in Peggy, who knows a thing or two about abandonment herself.

There’s fertile territory here for a play about loss and the unforeseen ways in which grief can express itself. But in its current, trimmed state, Unwin’s script cries out for further elaboration on virtually every front. It’s great to pare away excess padding but this is one example where less is in fact less, and the climax – when it arrives – seems comparatively arbitrary and not grounded in what has come before.

Have the sisters colluded in these paranormal activities as a kind of gamesmanship? That theory gets floated, and we’re made aware of the long shadow cast by a onetime inhabitant of this address whose son is among several characters to make a momentary appearance late on.

At the same time, you clock Peggy’s distress at the damage this much-publicised episode is doing to her standing in the community, though one wonders at the use of Enfield itself as a kind of punchline. It's not Wimbledon, we're told, to laughter from the house.

A large cast includes Daniel Stewart (son of Patrick) as a glowering presence who appears in and among the visual trickery of master illusionist Paul Kieve, and you have to commend Tate for pushing beyond her usual comic confines, even if the angsty role essentially consists of shushing her unruly children and sending them to bed.

Threlfall as ever commands attention in what is this play’s equivalent to the enquiring outsider of the title in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. But even as he prowls Lee Newby’s impressive two-story set, reliving memories that ought to cut to the quick, you can't help wondering what led these distinguished names to this venture in the first place.

The Enfield Haunting is at the Ambassadors Theatre through 2 March. Book The Enfield Haunting tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Catherine Tate in The Enfield Haunting (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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