December 7 – January 16
The Haunting of Hill House
‘Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills holding darkness within’…
And how many years ago is it now since I read this book? Quite something to put on a play based on a writer whom Stephen King himself holds in
high regard, and which has already been produced as one of the most frightening films ever, where four strangers are gathered together the investigate the strange happenings at the eponymous house.
Not least is the difficulty of the genre; it’s notoriously hard portraying horror because nervous tension makes people giggle, and always at what should be the most frightening moments. Add to that the fact that the main character, Eleanor, is exceptionally unsympathetic – so much so, you baulk at describing her as the heroine, though she would certainly lead the field when it comes to passive-aggression; she is appallingly needy and obsessive. Narcissistic, claims her polar opposite, the lively, vibrant Theodora (Chipo Chung) who ironically is equally manipulative. But all credit to Emily Bevan in such a tricky role because she does manage to make you feel sorry for Eleanor.
Theo in her machinations seems not so far removed from the medium the good doctor calls in, Celia Markway. The obligatory sceance scene however appears over-the-top, played for laughs although that perhaps is intended to be in contrast to the surrounding doom and gloom (which she also purveys as the dour housekeeper, Mrs Dudley). But you may have anticipated this approaching poignancy considering the tragic relevations it raises, rather than raising a chuckle. Jane Guernier makes the most of rather stereotypical roles, as do Martin Turner as the absent-minded yet sinister doctor and Joseph May who plays Luke, the cynical, alcoholic journalist. Indeed at times, the whole casts raises their game to archetype.
But the star of the showing has to be the staging. The use of sound and light, or rather, darkness, to create the creepy atmosphere is exemplary. And so are the astonishly clever visuals, constantly altering your sense of perspective, conjuring up a tangible sense of this house of horrors, from the intimidating maze-like interior and its colossal size to the mysterious inhabitants. Never mind ‘It’s behind you’ – what on earth is it that you glimpse out of the corner of your eye?
Panto is one thing but this grabs you by the seat of your pants. It’s a real, or rather, un-real, edge of your seat experience, and even if scary tales around a cosy fire are also a Christmas tradition, here’s a memorable alternative.