Tuesday, April 23

The Guildford Poltergeist – Hope Street Theatre

Where to start with this play?

It’s 1965 and a dysfunctional family of Irish descent (confusingly called Starbuck – a Yorkshire name) have moved from Manchester to deepest Surrey. Following the death of their father, bright seventeen-year-old Tristan must leave school to support his violent, alcoholic mother, Kathleen, and his neuro-atypical, school-shirking sister, Joyce. They’re already outsiders but they’re just about fitting in. Until the arrival of a poltergeist, which brings them infamy and attracts the suspicion of the local community. It also brings them into contact with a paranormalist, the priest, the press and the plod.

Playwright Tess Humphrey has a lot to say about, in no particular order: Catholicism, generational trauma, otherness, racism, sexism, neurodiversity, PTSD, witchcraft… I could go on. Unfortunately, she tries to say it all. Three hours in and I was really quite uncomfortable – not psychologically, or morally, but physically.

Just before the interval, the poltergeist is revealed. Summarily. It would have been nice for the audience to have been led to the realisation themselves. Instead, the fact is baldly stated. It feels anti-climactic but would have been a good place to stop the story. After all, it’s been almost 2 hours already and the denouement feels fair enough.

However, Humphrey is not finished: on it goes for another hour and a half. But this feels like a different play. Tonally, it’s more playful than the vicious maternal abuse we witness in the first half and the power dynamics shift. Humphrey posits at least three different rationales for the paranormal activity, one of which seems predicated upon an almost Murder on the Orient Express device of multiple agency or complicity, one upon the psychopathy of – what? – a Lucifer Complex?, and at least two different explorations into why people are either credible or incredible to the prospect of the paranormal.

If it’s a big ask of the cast, about whom I know nothing because there is no cast list, either on paper on online, it’s an even bigger one of the audience. The dialogue is verbose and there are more scene changes than apparently stars in the sky, every one of which is heralded by a ghoulish ultraviolet light. Some of the actors fare better than others. The person playing the Priest, lacking any gravitas, is hopelessly miscast and is more convincing in cameo as a member of the gutter press. Ackley Walcott, the paranormalist, is given great tracts of wordiness to recall, which he fails to do without tripping over them time and again. And the audience must employ a tone-deaf approach to the confusion of accents. Kathleen is mostly Irish undercut by Brummie and Tristan repeatedly calls Joyce “our kid” in the plummy vowels of the South.

The play fails to convince in other ways too. There is an assertion that previous paranormal activity was in fact a cathedral organ being played by mice dancing on the strings when a little research would have shown that organs have pipes not strings. There is also a, frankly, unforgivable lapse of grammar when Joyce seeks to correct Tristan, incorrectly. And the depiction of Kathleen’s violence towards her daughter, whom she punches in the stomach, feels off: women slap, they rarely punch.

And yet… it’s not all terrible. Whilst it’s bum-numbingly long, it is not mind-numbing. Madeline Dearden (thanks Lancashire Telegraph) is actually pretty wonderful as Joyce, at once otherworldly and knowing. Kathleen and Tristan are mostly convincing. And there’s the kernel of a good idea here. Several good ideas, actually. But the author evidences no self-control, and we get some kind of creativity-dump. Someone needs to go at the script with a pair of shears. Large ones.

Reviewer: Miranda Green

Reviewed: 23rd February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.