Review by Daz Gale
One of the most famous poltergeist events in the world is the subject of a new play as the world premiere of The Enfield Haunting finally opens in the West End this week, having had its press night delayed by a month. With a story that has haunted generations through retellings and adaptations and a cast led by Catherine Tate, would it be a spooktacular treat or leave me feeling not that bothered?
The story of the Enfield poltergeist in London between 1977 and 1979 may best be known to some of you as the subject of the movie The Conjuring 2. Set in the house of ordinary working-class family, the Hodgsons, the action focuses on the possessed 16 year old Janet. This new adaptation by Paul Unwin centres the story on one night in 1978 as events were reaching a climax, with much of the action based on the first-hand accounts of one of the ghost hunters.
Whether you are a sceptic or a believer is irrelevant when it comes to The Enfield Haunting. The likelihood of these events actually happening or being made up has been discussed for nearly fifty years and is not the point of this play. Instead, the idea is full blown escapism – what theatre does best. However, a play focusing on the supernatural is not without its challenges with illusions, tricks and scares needed to be truly effective to make the story feel chilling.
This is where the show begins to fall apart. The main problem is in the writing itself, with Paul Unwin’s story veering from one extreme to the other, never quite getting deep enough and leaving an inconsistent and incohesive story which is tonally all over the place. The play being 75 minutes in length is cause for concern in itself though could have meant the show was a pacey rollercoaster ride that never becomes dull. Inexplicably, the play still feels overly long, struggling with pacing, especially in the particularly slow opening scenes. Uncomfortable conversations about characters intentions with the suggestion of abuse seemingly comes out of nowhere and is then glossed over as if it had never been mentioned in one of the most obvious examples of why the writing falls short.
Though The Enfield Haunting boasts an impressive cast, they are bound by the limitations of the material and aren’t enough to save the show from its huge problems. Catherine Tate has proven herself to be a wonderful actress time and time again but for one reason or another, she feels miscast in the lead role pf Peggy Hodgson. She gives an emotionally stunted performance that very much feels a case of going through the motions, with her natural talents never being utilised in what is a real shame for those who were excited by the prospect of seeing her in the West End again.
David Threlfall gives an over-the-top and almost caricature-like performance as ghost hunter Martin Grosse, lacking chemistry with any of his fellow cast members and suffering from the confused writing which doesn’t know if he is a genuine person with a tragic past or has more sinister intentions. While these themes could have made a far more intriguing play, the lack of any sort of subtlety and nuance hinders the entire cast, through no fault of their own. This is a thread that repeats itself through every one of the cast members – clearly talented performers in their own right, their talents are wasted at the hands of nonsensical and tired writing.
Angus Jackson’s direction tries to do the best it can with the material it has to work with, but again can only go so far because of this. The greatest thing about The Enfield Haunting is undoubtedly in the visual aspect, with Lee Newby delivering a truly sensational set design painstakingly crafting both an upstairs and downstairs of the Hodgson’s home. This design helped retain your attention as your eyes darted across both levels to ensure you weren’t missing the next trick. It is just a shame such a fantastic design wasn’t utilised for a stronger show. Similarly, Neil Austin’s lighting was used to great effect with the inevitable blackouts leading to an eerie aesthetic as parts of the stage are left in darkness sporadically. The strong design aspects are completed by Carolyn Downing’s sound design, allowing for an atmospheric setting.
While there are several decent moments including tricks and illusions, these are nothing that haven’t been seen before and to better effect in the past. It feels unfair to compare to other shows but when you have Stranger Things: The First Shadow a stone’s throw away from the Ambassadors Theatre upping the level of what can be achieved through stage tricks, it really does show The Enfield Haunting up to how outdated and unoriginal some of these illusions are.
The Enfield Haunting can best be described as a hot mess. Not knowing exactly what kind of story it wants to tell, instead it chooses to tell none at all. I can only liken it to somebody beginning to tell you something, getting distracted and telling you something else instead. Had the show chosen one strand to focus on and one narrative style, this could have been a far more well-rounded show. Instead, rather sadly, we are left with a show that says nothing, does nothing and left me feeling cold, though I imagine not in the way they had expected. Unfortunately, London’s newest horror show is exactly that – Perhaps the most frightening thing you will see in the West End this year but not for the reasons the writer intended.
The Enfield Haunting plays at the Ambassadors Theatre until 2nd March. Tickets available here
Photos by Marc Brenner