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Haunted at the Royal Exchange

Philip Hamer is impressed with Brenda Blethyn's acting but baffled by Edna O'Brien's play

Published on May 20th 2009.

Haunted at the Royal Exchange

The world première of Haunted by Edna O’Brien continues the Royal Exchange Theatre’s fine tradition of promoting Irish dramatists. It also reunites Brenda Blethyn with a theatre where she has appeared to great acclaim on four previous occasions. The last time she acted here, in The Glass Menagerie in 2008, she deservedly won a TMA award.

With typical aplomb she plays middle-aged Mrs Berry, the breadwinner in a marriage long-drained of passion. Blethyn creates a fantastical yet fully realised character who is locked in a liaison that has grown older and more tired than the partners in it. Niall Buggy plays her husband with a creepy tenderness that is only a thin camouflage for his acute volatility.

A young elocution teacher, Hazel (deftly played by Beth Cooke) captivates Mr Berry. In return for elocution lessons, he secretly gives her clothes belonging to his wife, telling Hazel that she's dead. Eventually his wife discovers the relationship.

O’Brien is arguably more renowned as a novelist than a playwright, and her play forsakes naturalism in favour of literary symbolism. Aided by a subtle set with a revolving feature to the fore, you instantly inhabit a world in which nothing is as it appears.

The dialogue rises above small talk and we are often assailed by a series of soliloquies, beautifully written but rather over polished. Occasionally (and no doubt calculatedly because much is contrived here) clichés are introduced. There is only the faintest lilt or Celtic burr in the production but O’Brien’s writing is firmly embedded in the land of mists and mystery. The play's director, Braham Murray, handles it assuredly.

But on too many occasions you can see O’Brien brazenly borrowing from Joe Orton and Alan Bennett. There is a lot of Kath from Entertaining Mr Sloane in Mrs Berry and she reveals much of the same spite as one of Bennett’s ladies of letters.

At the end of this strangely heightened theatrical experience, no question is really answered. Despite the fine acting, too much here is really blarney and not truly baffling at all. It's infuriating, and as a result you leave the theatre much as you might leave the table after eating a meal by an extravagant master chef; with your tastebuds tickled but still hungry.

Until 13 June, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, 0161 833 9833

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