Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The House on Cold Hill’, which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Saturday 9th February
Peter James has an enviable reputation for writing ghostly novels that are so true to life (or death) that they could almost happen. Shaun McKenna has now adapted four of them for the stage and this very latest collaboration is the most entertaining of the lot. Together they have harnessed the public’s appetite for, and willingness to accept, communication with the spirit world. Their evil conclusion is very much at odds with my own experience, but for the purposes of this review, let us ‘suppose’ ghosts can get nasty.
There is an air of authenticity because it’s inspired by Peter James’ personal story. Some years ago, he and his spiritually sensitive wife moved into an old mansion in Sussex and were disturbed by the apparition of a ‘Grey Lady’. I doubt if she was as malevolent as the one written into “The House of Cold Hill”, but then a writer’s job is to push the envelope…which Mr James does to excellent effect.
His premise is that if we can now try communicating with ghosts using modern technology, why shouldn’t sentient spirits do the reverse? The resultant play is an unholy confluence of Gothic gloom and truculent technology. On Cold Hill, there really is a ‘ghost in the machine’.
Ollie Harcourt and his family are moving into an 800-year-old former monastery … which needs a lot of ‘work’. But their ‘for ever’ new home turns out to be a house with a history, a mind of its own, and plumbing which screams in the night.
It’s the pubescent teenage daughter, Jade, whom suffers first. On ‘Face Time’ to a friend, the friend sees an apparition over Jade’s shoulder. Then her mother, Caro, is beset by a poltergeist ironing board, before Peter James unleashes his unnerving, technological masterstroke.
I am sworn to secrecy about its exact nature…but it is highly inventive and chillingly effective. If you’ve ever been suspicious of 21st Century domestic devices, prepare to be vindicated.
What gradually emerges is that no one has survived their 40th birthday in this house and, unfortunately, Ollie is 39…with a big day looming.
High production values and spooky stagecraft create oodles of atmosphere. The special effects are excellently executed, causing your body hair to stand on end and involuntary laughs to gush forth. Whenever the lighting gets gloomier, you know you have to steel yourself.
The other great strength of the piece is the use of naturalistic dialogue in such a supernatural setting. The complete absence of any kind of mumbo jumbo makes the weird ‘goings on’ all the more believable and there are precious few clues about how matters will resolve themselves. In other words, it’s an excellent tale, very well told, by an outstanding cast.
Joe McFadden leads as the rational Scotsman who doesn’t want to believe a thing until its too late. The irony here is that having been killed off in Holby City, he lives again! There’s also an extremely clever moment when his repair man catches him dancing round the room and (as in the original book) tells him he ought “to go on Strictly”. Mr McFadden has, of course, been on ‘Strictly’.
Rita Simons is superb as his impressionable wife Caro … trying to hold it all together amidst the mounting irrationalities … and Persephone Swales-Dawson does the ‘typical teenager’ with all the authenticity of someone who was one, quite recently. Mr. James wittily sends a vicar (Padraig Lynch) into the fray – but he’s more interested in selling raffle tickets that conducting an exorcism – and, of course, there is a batty house cleaner (Tricia Deighton) who is a better Medium than mopper. So, there is some rib-tickling amidst the terror.
It all adds up to a pretty gripping production; and the news is there’s a fifth play on the way.
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