There’s a fine line between foreshadowing and telegraphing. Foreshadowing can create a feeling of dread or anticipation, of knowing something is coming even if we have only the vaguest idea of what that might be. Telegraphing, however, feels clumsier, like a Chekhov’s gun imperfectly placed to inform the audience of what an incoming twist might be.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is a very flawed play, but The 1812 Theatre and Swamp Fox Productions’ performance does the best it can with the material. Unfortunately, one choice in the set design lets us know very early on what a key theme that otherwise would have been a powerful reveal is, thereby robbing it of the impact it might have had and instead creating a mood of just waiting for the characters to catch up with the audience. There’s no dramatic irony to this, just a frustrating feeling of ‘get on with it’. It might have been less of a problem in a more compelling script, but while The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell often strives for intensity, it never quite gets there. The characters aren’t especially believable, the themes are garbled and the pace is mostly snail-like, apart from a couple of overblown moments towards the end that feel jarring compared to what has come before.
Reg Crib is a very good playwright, and made great use of slowly building tension and unexpected reveals in his play The Return and its subsequent film adaptation Last Train to Freo, but The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is hardly comparable. It begins with a great premise; a young actor, Craig, has been cast as famous poet Daniel Gartrell in an upcoming biopic and is invited to spend two weeks with the man himself in order to better understand him. Gartrell, however, is less than helpful, being by turns evasive and deceptive, frustrating the actor’s attempts to reach him at every turn. Early on the play suggests some dark secrets will come bubbling to the surface and they do; it just takes an awfully long time to get there. By the time we reach the big reveals the arguments have gone on in circles for so long that it’s more of a relief than a shock.
However, almost all the flaws in this play are down to the script, not this first-rate production. Despite its culpability in revealing too much too early, the set is striking and evocative, and the sound design sets an unsettling, haunting tone that makes the story feel darker and more portentous than it actually is. The three actors are all very good; Malcolm Sussman has a tremendous amount of fun as the eccentric, mysterious Gartrell, while Nigel Leslie brings a natural, earnest likability to Craig. The first scene between the two of them is a delight and the actors have an easy chemistry that manages to at least for a time plaster over the fact that not very much is happening. Janine Evans, who plays Gartrell’s daughter, has an enigmatic, engaging stage presence but there’s not much she can do with a character whose motivations make no sense. Some of the character developments toward the end don’t exactly ring true, but the actors do the best job they can to make them convincing.
The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell is a well-directed, well-acted production of a largely mediocre play. While there are snippets of great dialogue and the occasional moment that will make you lean forward, wanting to know more, the play is meandering and feels oddly directionless until it reaches an unconvincing finale.