Touring – reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre
It had to come. If you’re writing a modern day haunted house thriller I can’t think of anything better to be the subject of demonic possession than the Amazon Alexa. Whether their makers agree is a different matter.
There have been well-publicised stories of sinister Alexas having unprompted conversations, listening in on their owners and cackling fiendishly, as though they were being controlled by forces beyond our comprehension.
Best-selling crime writer Peter James has pounced on them. The House on Cold Hill, the latest of his books to be adapted for the stage, features one of the virtual assistants in a starring role. It may make you think twice before installing one at home.
Actually, Alexa showed herself to be a pretty good actor with a nicely judged performance that blended menace with wholesome innocence and good humour. She should go far. James’ previous stage outings have been straight-forward crime thrillers. Here he has turned to something closer to home.
Years ago he and his first wife moved into a large Georgian mansion in the Sussex countryside only to discover it was haunted. Of course it was. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the goings on in the house had the couple spooked but the experience did provide the writer with a gem of a story.
But taking a ghost story off the written page and putting it on stage is a tricky, almost impossible, task. We’ve all been spoilt by years of top flight special effects on screen that it’s almost impossible to replicate that fear and suspense in front of a live audience.
The creative team do their best but it’s very gimmicky. The bare bones of this production are good – but they could have been better with a bit of variation, a few more spectacular stunts. There’s only so many times you can spook an audience with the same ethereal image of a long-dead “grey lady.”
The House on Cold Hill opens with the mansion’s new owner walking into the lounge. The lights go out, he gets scared, and is killed as he flees the building.
Fast forward about 30 years and new owners arrive in the shape of jolly Joe McFadden’s Ollie Harcourt, his solicitor wife, Caro (Rita Simons), and their 16-year-old daughter Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson).
He’s just quit his job running an advertising agency and now plans a new career as a website designer – albeit, it seems, without the ability to design web pages on screen or even load them up to a website. I don’t rate his chances of success.
But he’s rashly bought the House on Cold Hill, just outside Brighton, and it is proving a money pit even before they’ve unpacked.
It doesn’t take long before the stock characters come out of the woodwork. Computer nerd and ghost hunter, Chris (played with a serious case of ants in his pants by former EastEnders’ star Charlie Clements), the mad psychic medium (Tricia Deighton) and the local parish priest (Padraig Lynch).
“You don’t seriously believe in ghosts,” scoffs an incredulous Ollie. “They’re just stories. Smoke and mirrors. Ghosts don’t exist.”
McFadden bounces around the impressive set like an enthusiastic teen. Always smiling, constantly cynical, ever the hard advertising boss who has made a career out of deluding people with an impossible sell.
But even he comes to believe that the house is both cursed and haunted – especially when his 40th birthday present, a new Alexa, appears to take on a life of its own.
Rita Simons isn’t asked to do much other than to look frantic and, as the suspense is racked up by a series of ghostly appearances, become increasing agitated.
What lets the play down is that it takes almost the entire first act – all 64 minutes of it – to really get going and then there’s just a 38-minute second act to deliver the goods.
There are some jumps and edge-of-your-seat moments but they’re really not scary enough – or at least for modern horror buffs.
The dialogue lacks originality and the cast are seriously overacting. There’s too much shouting and not enough subtlety.
The story is engaging but it is formulaic, rather dated and no different than dozens of other haunted house mysteries that have appeared over the years. The only difference here is that James had lived through the experience.
Shaun McKenna’s adaptation is a pleasant enough way to spend the evening but not in the same league as, for example, The Exorcist stage production. A nice try.
The House on Cold Hill runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday before continuing its tour to New Victoria Theatre, Woking (April 23–27); Leeds Grand Theatre (April 29–May 4); Alexandra Theatre Birmingham (May 6-11); Manchester Opera House (May 13-18); Cambridge Arts Theatre (May 20-25); Theatre Royal Glasgow (May 28-June 1); Connaught Theatre Worthing (June 3-8) and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham (June 11-15).
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