Simon Jenner in the West End
12 January 2024
Paul Unwin’s The Enfield Haunting – about the alleged supernatural incidents in a north London council house in the late seventies – has opened at Ambassadors Theatre after a delayed press night and a short, pre-West End tour which itself was somewhat spooked. Directed by RSC veteran Angus Jackson, it stars Catherine Tate as beleaguered mother Peggy Hodgson and David Threlfall as technical investigator Maurice Grosse.
Ella Schrey-Yeats and David Threlfall. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Unlike the hit thriller 2:22: A Ghost Story, this show is based on real events meticulously recorded and filmed, and later copiously reported. But suspicion and scepticism, accusations of hoaxes and delusions underpin a socially rational response now as in 1977.
Unwin (co-creator of long-running medical drama Casualty as well former artistic director of Bristol Old Vic) uses related biographical material about personal trauma outside 284 Green Street, Enfield. It turns the haunting into a hunt for closure, with dramatic reveals. From 2012 Unwin interviewed chief investigator (offstage, often-cited) Guy Lyon Playfair. Unwin’s heard the tapes, watched films. He’s invested in the project’s sincerity beyond the scatter of actual hoaxes the two Hodgson daughters played, which complicate the evidence, but not this narrative.
Mr Grosse has started arriving at times even outside his brief. Threlfall’s ex-military tech man, clipped yet warm, fatherly yet not intrusive, has become a part of the furniture. But the furniture’s moving about, lights explode, gas fires are ripped out suddenly, and noise and gruff voices emit from the wallpaper involving younger daughter Janet (Ella Schrey-Yeats). The tech which allows these moments is beautifully synched. Schrey-Yeats, in an assured stage debut, embodies Janet as a bundle of stiff and suddenly floppy terror, managing to seem both an 11-year-old full of backchat and unearthly, possessed not by demons but the fear of being pushed out of her own life.
It soon becomes clear in that a real-life tragedy in Grosse’s life informs his actions. Unwin’s looking for connections and it’s a convincing fit. Licence is taken, but who cares?
After a difficult early run, it’s a pleasure to report that Jackson and the cast have brought the production to a polished, human conviction. Tate shines as harassed Peggy, both pulled to sympathy for Threlfall’s decent Grosse, but repelled by his class and assumptions. And there’s more to discover.
Grace Molony and Jude Coward Nicoll. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Peggy finds neighbour Rey (an energetic, pragmatic Mo Sesay) irritating. Clearly not able to stay away, Rey is sceptical and dismissive, but full of solicitude and indeed warmth for Peggy. With attempted delicacy Grosse suggests Rey might make a decent protector. Peggy dismisses this just as she does Grosse’s assumptions her violent ex Eddy is any worse than any other Eddy out there she would have inevitably married. It’s bleakly truthful. Unwin chronicles cultural assumptions on the change. Peggy’s leading her own quiet revolution away from men to her own agency. It’s the heart of the play.
There’s vivid support too from Grace Molony as elder daughter Margaret, already at 14 sexually aware, taunting Grosse or suggesting he’s a “shirt-lifter” to younger brother Jimmy (Noah Leggott on this occasion, assured and playful with Threlfall and Tate) and always off to the “pardonez-moi” or bathroom, a touching skit on gentility.
There’s a wider shadowy cast but, as Grosse’s wife Betty, Neve McIntosh makes an extended foray into shock, outrage, and ultimately pity. As a neighbour with reveals Gareth Radcliffe brings not only truth but much-needed humour to his role. He gets one of the biggest laughs when he rejects the offered chair.
Lee Newby’s set is a star feature: a cut-away house with the expected ragged brick edges comprising back doors and a cluttered living room topped by a bedroom with stairs. The height of a luxury is an Action Man tank. The furniture is late 1960s shabby Ercol-style, perfect for a poverty-stricken family. The only jolt is the Eames-like modern chair the Hodgsons inherited. Too posh – and a bit modern – for 1977; and when you learn its provenance, you wonder they don’t throw it out. Maybe it time-travelled. Newby’s down-at-heel clothes fall like dreary mantles.
The show is strikingly lit by Neil Austin in a series of light dimmers, splutters, glows, and glares, but sound design by Carolyn Downing must take at least equal credit, particularly the voice-synching, along with Sam Lisher’s sparse, telling use of video design.
Unwin has sifted the evidence and come to a clear judgement about what he believes: the effects, which are subtle not scary (those who look for that miss the point), underscore this. Perhaps the world divides into those who’ve experienced phenomena and those who haven’t.
The conclusion is hard-won, as Tate’s Peggy, banishing everyone and everything, comes into her power. That, beyond the haunting and phenomena Unwin tilts towards, is the takeaway. An 85-minute time-capsule, solidly realized, not time-travelling ghosts, is what lends this sincerity-tethered tale a frisson of recognition.