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Examining the Guildford Poltergeist

Madeline Dearden as Joyce in The Guildford Poltergeist
Madeline Dearden as Joyce in The Guildford Poltergeist

Award-winning writer Tess Humphrey long-harboured a wish to write a play about hauntings or poltergeist, and the result arrives on stage from tonight in The Guildford Poltergeist at Salford’s King's Arms theatre pub (February 16-18), and at Hope Street Theatre in Liverpool (February 23-25).

Cerebral, tense and hilarious, the play, directed by Tess, concerns an Irish Mancunian family terrorised in their home by a mysterious force. Eerie messages appear scrawled around the house, notes drift from an untouched piano – and 13-year-old Joyce watches as her family is taken over by bizarre alter-egos. Can an eccentric medium and a sceptical journalist unravel the origin of the spirit? 

"Initially I had wanted to write a play about the Dalby Spook,” said Tess, “a real-life story in which a family claimed to be haunted by the disembodied voice of a talking mongoose called Gef. 

“As funny as that is, under the surface was an undercurrent so dark and troubling that I never did write it – it seemed too horrible to make entertainment from these real people. The young girl at the heart of the case never got over what happened to her, whether supernatural or psychological. So rather than ascribe motivations and mindsets to people who really existed, I used my own characters and created a story from what are common threads in poltergeist cases. There's always a teenager in the homestead, some form of tragedy or hardship, escalating gossip and self-appointed paranormal experts making things worse...”

The teenage siblings in The Guildford Poltergeist are Tristan and Joyce Starbuck. “They have lived in my subconscious for most of my life,” says Tess, “but I

began writing about them five years ago. 

“They were born in 1947 and 1951 respectively, and I use them to tell some of the stories my dad told me about life in the 1960s.

"They existed already in short stories, short films and another play called Rocket Man. But one day it clicked into place in my head that they are the kind of post-war teens you see in cases like The Dalby Spook and The Battersea Poltergeist.

"In the play, Joyce tells Tristan she feels like a silent explosion. She isn't allowed to smile out of turn, or put a toe out of line; she gets whipped at school for doing nothing wrong, but inside her is this explosive anger, ready to do damage to the outside world. And whether you're a sceptic or a believer, I think these haunting cases are fundamentally about powerless people, exploding…”

The play features actress Madeline Dearden as Joyce and Donna Gray as her mother, Kathleen - and if you are wondering how a 13-year-old can appear a play with an age restriction of 15 and over, Madeline is a youthful-looking 22.

“It's an adult story with a teenage protagonist, it isn't aimed at 13 year olds,” Tess said. “It's a psychological drama about childhood trauma, based on an amalgamation of true stories. Like The Exorcist and others of its genre, a poltergeist case usually involves a 13-year-old girl…”

Tess’s writing has already earned her recognition: she won a BBC Kevin Greening award for creativity in radio for her radio play The Prince of Humberside, for example, and even won an award for her first play, Winter of Our Discotheque, in her teens.

You can see a trailer here, and info and tickets are available here


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