Adelaide Fringe 2012
After a car crash, author Paul Sheldon is nursed back to health by self-professed ‘number one fan’ Annie Wilkes. It soon becomes clear however that Annie is dangerously disturbed, and will keep Paul alive only if he revives the deceased main character from his Misery Chastain series. The play is suitably claustrophobic and creepy, with sound, lighting and setting all essential in creating a morbid atmosphere.
Paul Sheldon, smug English author, asks at the beginning of the play, ‘What if misery is in fact a person?’ He finds out when he wakes up after a car crash in the home of Annie Wilkes, who claims to be his number one fan. At first appearing to be only mildly eccentric, Annie’s behaviour becomes more strange and sadistic as the days go by, and Paul realises that he is being held captive by a psychopath. Relying on Annie for food and medication, crippled from his crash, Paul plots his escape. The stakes are raised when Annie realises Paul has killed off Misery Chastain, the star of his novel series. Annie demands that Paul brings her back to life, threatening Paul with injury and death if he does not comply. As time runs out, Annie and Paul engage in psychological warfare, begging the question – who is hostage to who?
The unsettling material is given that extra edge in this adaptation by the fantastic setting, score, lighting and make-up. A masterstroke is also the use of video at the start and the finish – at the beginning it quickly fills in the audience with background knowledge, and allows us to glimpse into the mindset of the protagonist pre-captivity. At the end, we can see just how broken the experience has made Paul, which is almost as disquieting as watching his ordeal pan out.
The whole play is set in Annie’s house. The two main rooms are separated by a black chasm which could very well signify the dark emptiness where her sanity should be, and the house itself, like its owner, is at once so ordinary and yet so repulsive.
The make-up on Paul’s injured legs was so realistic there were more than a few groans of disgust when they were revealed for the first time, and the use of fake blood in some scenes was very clever. The most genuinely scary moments in the play came courtesy of well-timed thunder claps and engine revs, making the audience jump, and rather than having the stage constantly illuminated, the director, Michael Allen, goes with the theory ‘what’s unseen is scarier than what is seen’, and it pays off. In particular, when Paul is oblivious to Annie lurking in the shadows, there is a distinct atmosphere of menace and anticipation.
Joanne Hart, as Annie, is at her best when she is moving silently throughout the house, or, when in conversation, creates uncomfortable pauses. Although portraying a psychotic, when in manic mode Hart teetered towards comedic instead of chilling in some scenes, particularly during the climactic hobbling, which instead of fear inspired spontaneous laughter from the audience. John Maurice is also quite good as Paul Sheldon, swiftly going from being almost insufferably pompous, unable to grasp the severity of the situation, to strung out and stressed.
The production is overall a success, and the production values are first rate, buoyed by excellent performances. Misery is not for those who are easily spooked, but for horror junkies and lovers of quality theatre alike, be sure to get a ticket to this adaptation.