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Catherine Tate in The Enfield Haunting will take some beating as the worst show of 2024 | Theatre | Entertainment

Look, I don’t give one star lightly. But to charge audiences £135 for barely 70 minutes (no interval) of incompetent plotting, dire dialogue, poor characterisation and some acting that wouldn’t look out of place on a bad 1960s sitcom is enough to make the entire Theatreland give up the ghost.

I must stress that certain performances, particularly the younger actors, are strong and there are occasional moments of impact. But writer Paul Unwin and director Angus Jackson have done a terrible disservice to this fascinating true story.

In 1977 a North London working class household claimed to be plagued by a poltergeist and were alternately feted and ridiculed by ‘experts’, and salivated over by the national press.

In August 1977, single mum of four Peggy Hodgson called the police about strange noises and moving objects in her home at 284 Green Street in Enfield.

Her 11-year-old daughter Janet, corroborated by older sister Margaret, claimed to be possessed and would growl out the ‘male’ voices of menacing spirits. Across 18 months, over 30 people, including police and journalists, would confirm they heard or saw disturbing things.

Paranormal investigators Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair would often spend the night and attempt to record sound and images. Ultimately, though, the sisters admitted to faking or exaggerating some of the incidents and the case was increasingly dismissed as a hoax.

There is such potential here to explore our fascination with the unknown and quests to discover its truths. Let alone, themes of adolescent fantasies and cries for attention, alongside class tensions as the humble Greens become virtual sideshow attractions or experiments for ‘educated’ men and the gawking public. None of that happens here.

Peggy is rich material as a woman alone, suppressing her own needs and struggling to raise her children with few means and less support. Instead, hampered by an ineffective script that can’t resist feeble punchlines, Tate struggles to escape her comedy fame. Her broad expressions recall too many characters, her voice has shades of Nan and dramatic moments often draw laughter instead. 

Threlfall struggles valiantly as Grosse, bumblingly well-intentioned but hiding his own disturbing agenda that the staging clumsily implies is leaning towards inappropriate actions with the young girls. It is actually something far more bleak, and completely mishandled here.

Mo Sesay’s inane neighbour ‘Uncle Ray’ is painfully dated and ludicrously unconvincing but Ella Schrey-Yeats and Grace Molony impress as Janet and Margaret. The former also gamely contends with the almost impossible task of ‘doing’ poltergeist voices, complete with eye and head rolling, without appearing ridiculous. 

But it’s the poltergeist itself that ultimately buries the show when the production fatally exorcises any frisson of doubt or mystery. Blackouts while stagehands frantically rearrange furniture or a burst of light where Janet appears to float initially create some interest. But once the production takes a stand (or, crucially, seat) any remaining dramatic tension is blasted, screaming for mercy, into the ether.

So much of what happens makes no sense. We learn the previous tenant was found dead in his armchair after rotting there for weeks, yet the Greens kept it. Why and what state was it in?

Grosse meticulously positions cameras upstairs, and obsessively reviews notes and recordings. Yet, when the poltergeist actually, ya’know, rips the electric fire from the wall and smashes up the living room, he documents precisely nothing while everyone else appears to blankly ignore the destruction. Illogical nonsense.

As the incidents crescendo, the corresponding levels of reaction (and acting) limply deflate. An eleventh-hour eldritch scream to vacate the premises should take note from the far more terrifying Ms Peggy Mitchell across at the Queen Vic.

The final nail in the coffin comes in the naffly gratuitous closing seconds, which confirm the entire tedious mess is about as thrilling and convincing as its clunkily plastic prop teapot.

THE ENFIELD HAUNTING IS AT THE AMBASSADOR’S THEATRE UNTIL MARCH 2

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