Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Haunted - Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Haunted by Edna O'Brien
Director: Braham Murray
Reviewer: Clare Howdon

Edna O’Brien’s ‘Haunted’ which is currently playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, continues the long standing theatre’s tradition of promoting Irish dramatists. Although O’Brien is more renowned as a novelist rather than a playwright, this mesmerising memory play of love and betrayal sits comfortably alongside recent productions of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Widower’s House’ and Bridget O’Conner’s ‘The Flags’.

O’Brien is inarguably a writer of great beauty, description and subtlety and despite being set in England; ‘Haunted’ has a quintessentially Irish feel to it. The story centre’s around the lives and interactions of three lonely outsiders, whose musings and obsessions with love bind them together but also, ultimately drives them apart. Living in a sterile and passionless marriage on the outskirts of London, Mr. Berry meets and is instantly infatuated with Hazel, a shy yet bewitching young woman who has come to collect some clothing. When he finds out she teaches elocution, Mr. Berry uses this as an excuse to get her to return regularly, and in return for her tutoring, he gives her presents of expensive clothes and jewellery of his supposed late wife. However when Mrs. Berry – who is not dead as Hazel has been led to believe – starts to notice her diminished wardrobe, Mr. Berry’s fantasy slowly begins to unravel.

Braham Murray directs throughout in an assured manner, expertly treading the fine line between the comic and tragic elements of the play, and Simon Higlett's design is suitably sparse, allowing the symbolism of the omnipresent doll figure (which is a constant reminder of the couple’s inability to have children) and the frequently used Perspex door; to take centre stage. Johanna Town’s innovative use of under floor lighting also gives the characters a ghostly, unreal dimension adding to the heightened theatrical style of the piece.

O’Brien has undoubtedly written three terrific characters within this love triangle story-line and Brenda Blethyn, Niall Buggy and Beth Cooke truly excel in their individual roles. Blethyn, whom the part of Mrs. Berry was actually written for, turns in an effortless and truly heartfelt performance. Her comic timing is impeccable but she also has the enviable ability to tug on the audience heartstrings through a throw-away line or glance. Her constant yet deluded belief that a long anticipated holiday will sort out her marital problems, is played with heartbreaking empathy.

Niall Buggy is wonderful as the Shakespeare-loving manic depressive Mr. Berry and one cannot help but simultaneously delight and despair in the tragic ups and downs of the childless couple’s relationship. Buggy and Blethyn spar off each other with remarkable comfort and sincerity. Beth Cooke, recently seen at the Exchange in The Children’s Hour and Three Sisters, also gives a deliciously demure performance as the eloquent femme fatale Hazel.

As performances go, it is hard to fault the efforts of this three-strong cast and this coupled with a solid directorial and design concept, make this an evening of enchanting theatre.

Haunted runs at the Royal Exchange until Sat 13th June
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