FringeReview UK 2019
Adapted by Shaun McKenna from Peter James’ novel, and directed by Ian Talbot. Michael Holt’s single design of a converted monastery is lit by Jason Taylor, with sounds by Martin Hodgson, original music by Nick Lloyd Webber and crucial video work by Nina Dunn and projection by Matt Brown.
Brighton novelist Peter James is best known as a police-murder-thriller writer, but he’s diversified. The House on Cold Hill is a ghost chiller and like Monty Python’s Anthrax Ripple ‘exceedingly nasty’. Really. And as ever it’s set in a village overlooking Brighton.
We get that as a 1986 resident (Simon Balcon’s invisible O’Hare) tries to take possession and gets obstructed by a pile of falling masonry. Fast forward to today and Joe McFadden’s Ollie as ex-advertiser-turned-website-designer about to turn forty is moving in with solicitor wife Caro (Rita Simons) and daughter of sixteen Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson). They’ve outbid some mystery rival, and are being helped to set up wi-fi and Caro’s surprise present for Ollie by local geek Chris (Charlie Clements) and being warned about damp by builder Phil (Leon Stewart) – whose father won’t set foot in this place after an experience at seventeen. Would you? It’s a converted monastery, rebuilt sometime in the later 18th century. Nobody’s lived in here since O’Hare failed to.
Jade soon wrestles a book from Chris – he’s a ghost-hunter and it’s through him that Annie (Tricia Deighton) hippy lady who can’t get free of talking to spirits, comes to offer to clean for them, since her boutique’s a bit quiet. There’s a vicar Fortinbras (Padraig Lynch) who initially plays all rationalist with them, but shows a more empathic vein when needed. And it is.
Oh and there’s Alexa too. A black mini hatbox in shape with a fluorescent winking blue top. Chris accidentally lets out about the fortieth present so they set it up anyway. Ask Alexa anything and she’ll do her best to answer in her flashing blue way. It’s when she volunteers information without being asked you begin to wonder.
It’s been adapted by Shaun McKenna from Peter James’ novel, and directed by Ian Talbot with an eye to the fun and one-liners that make this a laugh a minute studded with shrieks. Michael Holt’s single design of a converted monastery is a piece of gothic foregrounded by a few modern items like a sofa. There’s a half-spiral open staircase leading to three monastery-type windows and directly underneath a place where shadows lurk. Left at the back there’s a semi-permeable screen on a level with those upper windows. The whole is spectrally lit by Jason Taylor; indeed all colours of the spectrum particularly mint green and violet subtly spook about – often with sounds by Martin Hodgson which in particular come together with Alexa the hatbox responding to questions. Original music’s by Nick Lloyd Webber and there’s crucial video work by Nina Dunn and projection by Matt Brown.
In brief, there’s a grey lady with long grey hair reported over the centuries, and grim discoveries in records. Even Fortinbras (no Hamlet lover, he loves Jeffrey Archer) finally admits he knows a thing or three, especially more records and a book. And after Annie’s upbraided for bringing on a recently-deceased aunt of Caro’s dire with warning, the family begin to believe their own senses and everyone huddles together to confront things. Still, didn’t Chris found a group for buying haunted houses? And is Annie on the level? Perhaps, unnervingly, they are.
McFadden nicely points up the competitive dog-with-a-bone Ollie, who’s competitive more than is good for him; Rita Simons makes a fine rational peacemaker as Caro. Swales-Dawson is irritatingly good for the gawky age and Clements neatly balances burning zeal as a ghost-buster and matter-of-factness as geek. Deighton enjoys Annie’s inspired battiness, with a streak of sovereign wisdom; and Lynch sashays from unctuous jolliness to focused holy man. Stewart’s querulously chipper Phil is one of those characters who come with a copper-bottomed guarantee that nothing can go awry if they’re in the room.
This is an axe-clean chiller, more in the tradition of M. R. James in its disquiet and leftover ire. There’s a rationale for all those twists, and signposting on the way which the audience didn’t miss. The first half ended with some thrills, though it seemed a little tame. Much of the real tension winds in the final fifteen minutes, but James can tell a detailed story, and your attention’s held by red herrings, warning signs, premonitory announcements throughout both acts.
There’s twists and when you get back to a warm bed many turns in the night. Sleep as well as you can. The house won’t.