Writer: Peter James
Adapter: Shaun McKenna
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: Simon Topping
It’s 2019 and the Harcourt family have taken the plunge to move to a beguiling 18th-century manor house just outside Brighton, which has laid empty since the late 1980s. Ollie Harcourt (Joe McFadden – Casualty star and Strictly Come Dancing winner) has sold his advertising business in the city and persuaded his solicitor wife, Caro (Rita Simons – Eastenders), to enter in the spirit of adventure, with reluctant teenage daughter, Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson), begrudgingly in tow. It’s going to be a mammoth task to get the house ship shape; there’s unexplained rising damp in the basement, the pipes make a ghostly wailing noise at all hours of the day and night and there are rumours in the village that the house is cursed.
Knowing nothing of the home’s sinister past the couple make their best effort to adjust to country living, trying to persuade their offspring of its charms. Going about their daily lives Ollie hires a tech guy, Chris (Charles Clements) for his new web design business and Jade hires a local business owner, Annie (Tricia Deighton) as a cleaner. Inside the house affecting the extensive repairs is builder Phil (Leon Stewart), and local clergyman Father O’Hare (Simon Balcon) soon becomes a regular visitor.
In the first half, the action plods at a pedestrian pace. The stellar cast are slowed by the lack of spark in the writing. McFadden cheerily pushes through the plot and performs charismatically, as does Simons. Swale-Dawson is excellent as the phone obsessed college student but the story doesn’t quite hold interest in the hot auditorium.
Deighton brings some fabulous light relief as the eccentric cleaner who hears the dead, a la Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost; she has great comedy timing and scene-stealing facial expressions. Also, a couple of references to McFadden’s time in Strictly are thrown in to good comedy effect.
As the half comes to close, Ollie receives an Alexa voice-activated assistant as an early 40th Birthday present, which starts to throw out some unusual phrases, even when unprompted. The family learn more about the terrible history of the house from Father O’Hare and Chris the computer geek (who happens to be a paranormal geek too) and they begin to feel there’s a menacing presence amongst them that needs to be purged.
In the second half the tension racks up a little and as the unexplainable instances intensify and the family are forced into drastic measures.
The mechanics and staging (designed by Michael Holt), have some neat hidden tricks within them, one of which, in the first half, has the audience jumping out of their seats. The use of Alexa as a modern ghoulish version of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a nice touch too and is used well both for comedic and disquieting effect.
Good horror suspense is difficult to realise in the theatre. The audience is too detached from the action, unlike in a darkened cinema, and plot lines have to converge in well structured, building, way towards fever pitch. The House on Cold Hill has difficulty doing this and while the whole cast perform well, the play never really takes flight, leaving the room a little flat and wanting, perhaps, to immerse themselves in an episode of Inside Number 9 for their thrills instead.
Runs till Saturday 8 June 2019 | Image: Helen Maybanks