Writer: Shaun McKenna from the book by Peter James
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Ollie needs a new challenge. He’s sold his advertising agency for megabucks and set himself up as a web designer – albeit one who can’t set up his own wifi. He and solicitor wife Caro have used the proceeds to buy Cold Hill House, an old and, frankly, spooky house on the cold side of a hill that has stood empty since the last owner met with a tragic end over 30 years ago. Teen daughter Jade is unimpressed at being uprooted from her cosy life in Brighton to this existence in the middle of nowhere but at least she has social media and FaceTime to keep in touch with her pals. Ollie and Caro recruit some villagers to help them get set up: computer geek Chris to cover the technical bits of Ollie’s business, local builder Phil and ageing hippy Annie, who helps out with a little light cleaning.
Of course, nothing is as it seems in the house, and a sequence of unnerving and unexplainable events is set in motion as Ollie, Caro and Jade gradually learn more about the house and its past owners.
The setting might be an ancient house with similarly ancient spirits, but this is indubitably a story set in the present day: Ollie and his family rely on modern technology to carry out their daily lives, working and social, and technology plays its own part alongside ghostly screeches and inanimate objects moving of their own volition. And Michael Holt’s detailed set design does indeed set the scene, with its ancient-looking stones, grey walls and gothic windows. It has plenty of nooks and crannies, too, for the supernatural visitors to populate. Jason Taylor’s lighting design is suitably spooky, while the sound design from Martin Hodgson, supported by Nick Lloyd Webber’s original music, goes some way to maintaining tension. But the impact of that soundscape is diluted as the sound reproduction is somewhat muffled. It’s not obvious if this is down to the recordings used or the Belgrade’s own sound reproduction system – in any case, it does detract a little from some of the moments designed to make one jump. And rest assured, there are plenty of moments that do that, thanks to the writing of Peter James and adaptor Shaun McKenna and direction from Ian Talbot. The scene is set before the interval as tension is created and heightened so that after the interval we sit with nerves twanging waiting for the next shock.
Joe McFadden and Rita Simons do a fine job of (still) loved-up couple Ollie and Caro. McFadden is like a dog with two tails as he brings out Ollie’s childlike joy at having reached a level of success that allows him to buy such a property, while Caro, although similarly excited is a little more grounded. Each tries to protect the other as they initially deny the evidence of their senses when it becomes clear that they are not alone in the house and that its other inhabitants also have plans. The gradual shift of mood that each demonstrates grounds the characters in reality even as we are suspending our disbelief in ghosts and ghostly goings-on. Persephone Swales-Dawson is suitably stroppy as Jade, a believable 16-year-old transitioning from dependent to her own person and moaning at anyone who might listen along the way.
Charlie Clements brings us the geeky Chris and his secret passion. He brings out Chris’ increasing excitement at the events in the house, while Leon Stewart’s Phil is down-to-earth, albeit nervous with it having been told tales of the house’s past by his dad. Tricia Deighton is delightful as the somewhat dippy hippy Annie who is equally at home chatting with Caro’s dead aunt as with any of the more traditionally alive characters.
The House on Cold Hill is a perfectly competent and traditional ghost story, albeit one that lives firmly in the present day. It has its quota of shocks (and the accompanying nervous laughter) as well as a feeling of unease – Talbot understands that often less is more, that suggestion and the imagination are powerful tools in his repertoire. It is unfortunate that some of the impact is lost because of the slightly dodgy sound reproduction at times.
Runs Until 16 February 2019 | Image: Helen Maybanks