Haunted

Tammy Moore is haunted by the two hours of her life that she won't get back

Haunted suffered from good publicity. Written by Edna O’Brien, the doyenne of Irish literature, and starring Oscar nominated actress Brenda Blethyn, expectations were always going to be high. Add to that the fact that nothing but good things have been said about the play and Haunted would have had to be transcendent and transformative to live up to the hype.

It isn’t, and it doesn’t.

Mr and Mrs Berry are fleshy, flawed, wonderful characters, real as pins. They pick at each other, flensing gobbets of pride from the bone with beautifully crafted jibes, but they’d never leave. Whether through fear or spite or some vestige of love they are bound together in that cold, green house.

Hazel is a much flimsier character, but there is the sense that she is meant to be. She is stiff and still, awkward in her own skin. There is nothing to her but tongue-twisters and other people’s dreams. Even her face is blank, leaving her puppet-like mouth the only animated thing about her.

Infatuated with her, with his idea of her, Berry dresses her in his wife’s clothes and gives her money. It’s his fairytale, with she the damsel in distress and he the knight in shining armour. The only role left for Mrs Berry is the evil queen, even if it doesn’t suit her. There is even a moment where Berry suggests that they adopt Hazel, much to Mrs Berry’s irritation.

Of course, Hazel might already be his child. It’s hinted at towards the end. If true it would be no comfort to Mrs Berry, who sits in frozen dignity on a bus as she miscarries her only child. ‘Stuck to it,’ she says, enunciating the words in a way elocution teacher Hazel would appreciate.

Blethyn is comfortable in the role after a successful stint in Manchester and is the most assured and consistent of the actors. The scene wherein she finally uncovers her husband’s long hidden proto-adultery is a powerful one. Finally sure of her footing after spending most of the play reeling from her husband’s lies and cruelty she slices strips off both Mr Berry and Hazel, her light, breathy voice gone steely.

Occasionally the actress is asked to do a little too much. The director seems afraid to let the pace of the play flag and rather than let Blethyn simply act, has her up and down and in and out.

Not that Blethyn is the only one on the move; none of the actors are ever still. Niall Buggy as Mr Berry is so frantic and fidgety it is distracting. Even Beth Cooke, whose performance is characterised by her stiffness, occasionally careers, tilted forwards from the ankles, across the stage in sudden movement.

It is most jarring with Blethyn though. In the moments where she can be still, slapping robustly at her aching calves or leaning with fragile happiness into Mr Berry’s embrace, you can see what a good actress she is. The frenetic motion of the play simply detracts from that.

The first half of the play provides lots of lush O’Brien prose (a feast of language, Blethyn describes it) and some genuinely touching and rueful moments. The plot is unexceptionable, but mostly unobjectionable. Although attempts to frame the play as farce fall flat against Mr Berry’s nastiness and cruelty.

Unfortunately it all starts to fall apart in the second half as the edges of the plot visibly fray. In a scene that seems totally lacking in narrative value a carousel horse descends from the sky, Hazel climbs on and is lifted a few inches into the air while singing a song. (They are supposedly at the beach at the time, which makes it less surreal but no more sensible.)

Haunted
also trails on past the natural end of the story. The meat of the play is over once Mrs Berry has identified her husband’s infidelity. She staggers across the stage, wheezing slowly and for a little too long as audience start to giggle, and disappears into the bedroom. Yet seconds later she pops back again, pleading with Mr Berry - who appears to be a fugue state at this point - to hold her and leaves again.

It’s still not done with and Hazel comes back for more. She’s crazy now, in a childish, unconvincing way as if the actress was told to take her direction from Shock Treatment. The guard dogs are ‘woof woofs’ and Mr Berry is her ‘nuncle’. The audience laugh again, but I think it’s meant to be poignant.

The problem is that the story isn’t what matters in Haunted, rather the beautiful, eloquent words that flow between Mr and Mrs Berry and the nonsense rhymes that Berry parrots manically back at Hazel in search of that connection. It is lovely to listen to and, during the play itself, it’s easy to get caught up in the bantering back and forth of words. Watching the story wither away rather than end, it is dissatisfying.

Haunted was widely touted as ambiguous, but there is little moral or plot ambiguity to be found. None of the characters die during the timeline of the play. One of them dies later, in a scene ridiculously foreshadowed by cancer cells projected on the wall, but that isn’t ambiguous. It isn’t even very interesting.

Nor does there seem to be any opportunity for doubt about where the blame should fall in the story. Mrs Berry is occasionally snappy but overall blameless. Hazel is clearly simple and can’t be held accountable, while Mr Berry is a lecherous, unfaithful liar who tells his wife he might have testicular cancer in order to find time to go see his girlfriend.

None of which is helped by the staging which, like the actors, is given too much to do. The cold, mildew green of the Berry’s house - with its closed doors and the creepy doll on its stand - provide a marvellous, eerie backdrop for the play. Yet doors that light up like on an episode of Playschool, and a slideshow of roses, clouds and the aforementioned cancer cells all accompanied by creaking, Hammer House of Horror strings are neither understated nor effective.

Even if it wasn’t as good as the hype, it should have been better than it was.

Haunted runs in the Grand Opera House until February 20.