Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 8 December, 2011

Joe Penhall has the gift, valuable to a writer, of leaving holes invisible to the naked eye. For a taut, seamless literary or dramatic fabric is not necessarily best; more potent can be a work which at first appears linear and specific enough, but turns out to furnish a wealth of gaps through which diverse interpretations and resonances can find their way.
On the surface, the title character in Penhall’s new play is young Thomas, a diffident lad, bullied at school, whose fears and worries are fed by noises he hears at night, and most of all by his father’s disappearance and then reappearance and the subsequent tensions evident between his parents, with unsettling behaviour on both sides. How can a child hope to understand such very adult complications? Yet the haunted child could also be Thomas’s mother Julie, living first with the memory of her vanished husband and then tormented by the chasm between those recollections and the husband-shaped creature that has returned to her, spouting frightening yet sometimes seductive otherworldly gibberish. It could even be the revenant Douglas, haunted simultaneously by the desires of his past life with Julie and Thomas and by the tenets and requirements of his new “spiritual” path, a mixture of vaguely Buddhist cliché and a claptrap pastiche of Scientology.
It is scarcely less difficult, Penhall, implies, making sense of the world as an adult than as a child. The allure of a supernatural interpretation can be strong, as can that of fervent faith in an instructing authority: in a line that comes out the blue, Julie questions the strength of Douglas’s belief in his new leader by asking, “Would you blow yourself up on the tube if he told you to?”
Ben Daniels is terrific as Douglas, trying to sound reasonable at all times, quite devoid of the happy-zombie stare of the cult devotee yet still seeming not quite in focus with his surroundings. Sophie Okonedo’s Julie begins as a moderately stressed effectively-single mother and frays convincingly from that point. Penhall’s writing is not ostentatious in its absence of answers, but rather it discreetly poses a clutch of questions and, as I say, leaves the kind of holes that strengthen the play rather than weakening it, allowing us to peer into it and through it from a variety of angles.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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