Writer: Peter James
Adaptor: Shaun McKenna
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
Stage adaptations of the best-selling crime novels of Peter James have proved quite successful in the last few years, in touring productions with casts made up of popular, TV-familiar actors. Directed by Ian Talbot and written by James’s regular adapter Shaun McKenna, The House on Cold Hill continues that trend, but turns instead to James’s foray into the supernatural, his 2015 novel which combines traditional ghost story elements with a modern tech twist. The result is a proficient, enjoyable production that delivers laughs and scares as it works its way towards an unexpected conclusion.
Apparently based on the author’s own “haunted house” experiences, The House on Cold Hill focuses on Ollie and Caro Harcourt, a professional couple with a teenage daughter, Jade, who’ve sunk their cash into purchasing a Georgian pile in the Sussex countryside. Jade – endlessly Facetiming – affects to be unimpressed with her new surroundings, but her parents are determined to make a go of it, with Ollie convinced that the move will benefit them all, as well as providing a base for his new web design company. However, it’s not long before strange events in the house start to upset the family’s equilibrium, and they hear stories of “The Grey Lady” (an unfortunate moniker for those of us who fondly remember the haunted house episode of Rising Damp) who it seems is still present in the property.
The House on Cold Hill diligently – and derivatively – ticks off ghost story staples: the cynic who becomes a terrified believer, the ambiguous locals with spooky secrets about the past, the dotty psychic who may be more attuned to the supernatural than it seems, the spirit who could be appearing in sorrow as much as anger. James’s twist on those over-familiar elements is to bring in references to modern technology – in particular, Caro’s purchase of an Alexa for Ollie – and to suggest that the ghost may use such devices for communication or sabotage. It’s an unpromising idea that the production actually manages to incorporate quite effectively for both sinister and comic effects.
An appealing cast also help to keep the proceedings afloat. Smiley Joe McFadden starts out a bit stiffly but warms up and does well in conveying Ollie’s move from enthusiasm to scepticism to fear; the Strictly fans in the crowd are also rewarded with a reference to that show. Rita Simons gives a shrewd, sympathetic performance as the solicitor wife, and Persephone Swales-Dawson negotiates the clichéd teen-speak that constitutes a lot of her dialogue with easy assurance. The reliable Charlie Clements brings an oddly valiant quality to his characterisation of the awkward tech geek Chris, and Padraig Lynch, Tricia Deighton, Leon Stewart and Simon Balcon round out the cast well.
The story has none of the psychological elements that make something like The Turn of the Screw resonate beyond the surface scares, and the effects and sound design here are merely serviceable. But Talbot’s production engages and entertains up to a satisfyingly dark conclusion.
Runs until 13th April 2019 | Image: Helen Maybanks