In this furious, fast-paced, technology-heavy modern world, are we in danger of losing all sense of ourselves and our place in society?
That’s what seems to have happened to Douglas in Joe Penhall’s new play. Disillusioned by work, traumatised by his father’s death and struggling with the daily grind of marriage, he deserted his wife and child for a sort of cult, a commune, where he feels he has found a spirituality that was previously lacking in his life.
But to his wife, Julie, he simply vanished. She thought he was dead. So when he returns one night, dishevelled, with teeth missing, she is understandably confused about exactly what has happened to her once loving husband.
I suppose Haunted Child is meant to be seen from either point of view, but it is hard to sympathise with Douglas’s position, however much you understand that his breakdown – as that is what it appears to be – has stemmed from the kind of societal ills we all recognise.
Julie’s position is more relatable; a wife and mother trying to provide for her child after having been abandoned by her husband, she is understandably angry and uncomprehending when said husband returns spouting pseudo-religious teachings from a ‘spiritual leader’. When he starts drinking salted water from a bucket to make himself sick – it “purifies the system” – declares son Thomas (Jack Boulter) to be the reincarnation of his dead father, and announces he’s renounced sex, music and alcohol, my sympathy lies firmly with Julie.
Though both Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels give fine performances, it is hard to imagine Julie and Douglas ever having been a happily married couple; their differences, now, are too stark. It is hard to believe, too, that however troubled a father may be, he would be so blinkered to the trauma he is inflicting on his own son.
Played out on Bunny Christie’s living room set, Jeremy Herrin’s production has pace and drama, but it also brings humour when you least expect it. At times we are made to laugh at Douglas’s strange, cultish antics, but surely we shouldn’t? However risible we think his indoctrination into this ‘cult’ – and it is made risible by the extreme nature of his exploits – there is an air of danger, of warning, about his story. This is a man who has been so ground down by modern life that he has chosen to step out of it. Penhall’s point must be that this is the danger we all face, and that’s no laughing matter at all.