The Enfield Haunting, Ambassadors Theatre review: even Catherine Tate can't reanimate this limp ghost story

Catherine Tate as Peggy in The Enfield Haunting (Marc Brenner)
Catherine Tate as Peggy in The Enfield Haunting (Marc Brenner)

The West End has long had a fascination with things that go bump in the night. From 33 years of The Woman in Black to the success of 2:22 A Ghost Story and now Stranger Things: The First Shadow, audiences clearly crave a good scare on a night out.

The latest show hoping to have 'em screaming in the aisles is The Enfield Haunting, starring Catherine Tate and David Threlfall – the first big opening in Theatreland of 2024. But sadly this limp effort will barely raise more than a sigh.

The Enfield poltergeist was a celebrated haunting case that attracted a lot of attention in the late 1970s. Police, paranormal investigators and psychical researchers (as well as the press) descended on 284 Green Street where single mum Peggy Hodgson appeared to be beset by ghosts and ghoulies flinging furniture around and levitating her kids.

Many will know the story as it has inspired dramas and documentaries on the BBC, Sky and Apple TV and is the basis for hit film Conjuring 2. But does it make for a decent West End show? Well it might, but this ain’t it.

On the plus side, at 75 minutes it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and the set designed by Lee Newby, as if the family's house had been ripped open for us to peer into brings the right air of menace.

Still, at that running time, you’d expect it to canter along from scare to scare until a crash bang wallop finale, but the confused narrative and pedestrian dialogue sucks the energy out of the show. And then it all just ends very abruptly.

Ella Schrey-Yeats as Janet and David Threlfall as the psychical investigator, Maurice (Marc Brenner)
Ella Schrey-Yeats as Janet and David Threlfall as the psychical investigator, Maurice (Marc Brenner)

The show’s writer Paul Unwin (the co-creator of Casualty), who met one of the paranormal investigators on the case, wonders in the programme if the case had to do with forces in the house being unleashed or extreme emotions triggering behaviour. Or is it all a hoax?

But the script fails to engage with any of this – especially the behaviour of the two daughters Jenny and Margaret – in any meaningful way. Characters lack nuance and often spout exposition at each other as if that was the same thing.

The draw, of course, is Tate, returning to a play in the West End for the first time since The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015. Her performance here grew more assured as the show went along – what started out as mugging and over-annunciating like it was a comedy sketch, became more nuanced and the best thing in it by the end.

This is about the quiet despair of an ‘ordinary’ mother trying to make a stand against forces beyond her control and keep her family together. She has an alcoholic ex-husband, an over attentive neighbour, a paranormal investigator, three unruly kids, oh and a ruddy poltergeist all tramping about in her house, so fair play to her for keeping a lid on it all.

The show's other star, Threlfall, is a warm presence as kindly investigator Maurice Grosse, though is hung out to dry a bit by the scenes where he believes the ‘possessed’ child is his dead daughter.

What about the horror? The lights flicker, the pipes clank, a possessed girl wanders about with creepily big eyes and when the scares come they are fine, but it’s impossible not to think they had been done better and scarier elsewhere, from the jump scares, to the levitation, to the 12-year-old speaking in demonic tones.

Unwin has called it a psychological ghost story and a "ghost story for now". I'm not so sure, certainly not in this form, and when compared to its counterparts in the West End it will only ever be the spectre at the feast.Ambassadors Theatre, to March 2; buy tickets here