Review: Haunted at Malvern Festival Theatre

Edna O'Brien is better known as a novelist than a dramatist, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the best aspects of this play, first staged at the Royal Exchange in Manchester last year, sound like elegant prose.

Just as opera singers sometimes describe a demanding role as "a big sing", this play is a big act for its two principals. But by the end the audience is likely to share some of their exhaustion.

Mr and Mrs Berry are an elderly couple living in the London suburbs whose childless marriage has turned hollow. Mr Berry is a rose grower and an Irish dreamer whose philanderings have now reached the romantic, theoretical stage.

When a slightly odd young elocution teacher turns up on his doorstep in search of some rare garment, he gives her one of his wife's cardigans to encourage her return, telling her that she is dead.

As the elicit but oddly innocent relationship progresses through a seaside idyll, he gradually gives away the contents of his wife's wardrobe.

Discovery finally leads to an apocalyptic confrontation and the abyss which has been threatening throughout. But it is hard to know how literally to take anything: is the drama all going on inside Mr Berry's head, or are the women ghosts?

It's not even clear what period we are in. Mrs Berry's bouffant hairdo and headscarf suggests no later than the late 1960s, and the set with its blank curved walls and anonymous classical furniture offers no clues.

But there may be a clue in the fact that Haunted is a reworking of a television play O'Brien wrote nearly half a century ago.

So this is a kind of dream play, intermittently illuminated with a particularly Irish sense of poetry and humour which vaguely recalls Beckett, although it is full – too full, really – of quotations ranging from Shakespeare to Eugene O'Neill.

It is slightly surprising to discover that the male character is definitely the play's principal focus.

So while Brenda Blethyn's is the name everyone will recognise here, and her performance as the vulnerable battleaxe Mrs Berry is compelling, it is Niall Buggy's tour-de-force which carries the main weight of this intriguing but ultimately irritating evening.

Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes. Until Saturday.