The week in theatre: The Enfield Haunting; The Last Show Before We Die; Exhibitionists – review

<span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Photograph: Marc Brenner

The trigger warnings at The Enfield Haunting are misleading. They alert audiences to bright lights and big noises. They should have braced them against a feeble script and a production that quavers along as if afraid of its own ghost.

It is almost impressive. Dramatist Paul Unwin and director Angus Jackson have gathered so many promising ingredients, summoned so shiny a cast – and come up with something completely flat. This investigation of the celebrated case of a north London poltergeist fills the air with more speculations than levitating bodies or flying furniture. Catarrhal rasps, blackouts, fizzing lamps and upturned sofas are the main frighteners in an evening unlikely to give anyone nightmares – unless they are phobic about armchairs.

Competing explanations for disturbance are all underdeveloped. Teenagers are hoaxing; the place is trembling with sexual awakening and with dread of the occasional visits of a drunken father; one of the psychic investigators (played by David Threlfall) has an eerie link to the mystery and possibly too great an interest in girls. A single mother (Catherine Tate) is fighting for her family. Oh, and a grumpy old fellow died in the house.

The King’s Head, the cornerstone of London’s pub theatres, has transplanted itself. No more a burrow with a beer smell

It would be absurd to expect a solution to the old mystery but not, surely, to hope for dynamism. Yet the action judders from one incident to another as if someone had taken bites out of the plot. Tate is often left stranded as an inert onlooker, seeming not so much to speak her lines as let them bounce off her voice. Threlfall cannot breathe life into the weird lingo with which he is saddled – “giving the nippers their tuck”. The date is 1977: I Only Want to Be With You (Bay City Rollers, not Dusty) neatly winds throughout, yet the atmosphere is often 1950s starchy. Sometimes earlier. Threlfall’s moustache is positively Edwardian.

The Yard is a perfect space for an Edinburgh transfer such as Mary Higgins and Ell Potter’s two-person sprint. It takes itself lightly, allowing for glints and dips. Directed by Sammy J Glover, The Last Show Before We Die is bright and unfocused, talented and incoherent.

The theme is endings: the two performers are, so the conceit goes at any rate, partners in life as well as on stage and are wondering whether to split: end of love affair, end of show. It is an agglomeration rather t but han development, which begins with a strange fusion in which the two sing – beautifully, liturgically, the words of a midwife. The mixture of holy aspiration and down-to-earthness roused murmurs of recognition from the audience, though the instructions to labouring women are dismaying: they are told what they are going through is like passing “the biggest poo you’ve ever seen”; that it is “literally the same thing”. Literally?

Recorded voices are piped on to the stage, most resonantly the generous, calm farewell of a dying grandfather. Meanwhile, the writer-actors send up themselves and their experiments, strutting around as crows to symbolise GRIEF, rolling around in flesh-coloured body stockings in which one breast has managed to make a break for the open air. They end by weaving a cat’s cradle in which lines of string mesh the stage and include the finger of an audience member. It’s a sweet image for a precarious network of connections in which the threads are finally snipped.

The King’s Head, the cornerstone of London’s pub theatres, has transplanted and transformed itself. No more a burrow with a beer smell. The new building, just around the corner, is bright, with 21st-century light wood and black brick walls, and more bottles than taps in the bar.

This is improvement, not abandonment. The theatre is linked to its old self, physically by a communal wall, and in programming. Exhibitionists, the first production in the new home, is a new gay romcom with a clear and cheery message, one that should be self-evident but can still bear emphasising: gay marriages are as various as the other kind.

Writers Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle proclaim themselves inspired by 1930s and 40s screwball comedies, often written by closeted dramatists. They don’t mention Private Lives but Coward’s play is the springboard for a plot, set in 21st-century California, in which an estranged couple unexpectedly find themselves running into each other with their new younger lovers. Rekindling their desire, they run off together, bash each other up verbally and physically, while their partners circle around.

It’s an unfortunate model for Bronagh Lagan’s production. Coward’s sparkling darts are unmatchable, and it is too hard to suggest the glacial tide tugging at the hilarity from below. There is plenty of anguish here, but it is all declared. Without some concealment there is far less sizzle. The action – much farcical rushing around the stage, unconvincingly missing other people – drains energy from the dialogue. The acting – many twitched eyebrows and licked lips – leaves too little to the imagination. The most insouciant performance comes from Øystein Lode as a Norwegian siren, with shorts, a bun and tempting morsels on a tray. He also provides the evening’s most interesting verbal moment, with a teasing piece of vocabulary. Look it up. Slutt.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Enfield Haunting

The Last Show Before We Die