The House on Cold Hill – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Gail Schuster, April 2019
The House on Cold Hill is Peter James’ fourth novel to have been adapted for the stage and is a contemporary ghost story complete with mobiles, laptops and WiFi. It broadly follows the narrative of the book but differs significantly in the development of the characters because of the constraints of stage production. The play follows the tribulations of the Harcourt family, who have bought the house of their dreams; their forever home in the Sussex countryside, however it is far from idyllic.
They have stretched themselves financially to buy the dilapidated, old, Georgian mansion. Ollie, portrayed by Joe McFadden of Holby City, Casualty and Heartbeat fame, is trying to set up his own website design business and the structural improvement works only add to the stress. His wife, Caro, actor Rita Simons, formerly of EastEnders and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, is a busy solicitor. Their daughter Jade, Persephone Swales-Dawson, does not want to live in the countryside and resents having been taken away from her friends in Brighton, constantly Facetiming her best friend Phoebe.
“Note of comedy”
Very soon after moving into their new home they reluctantly start to realise that they may not be the only residents, as they start to piece local rumours together with the history of the building. Receiving intelligent speaker Alexa for his birthday, it is not long before Ollie realises that it has become a conduit for more and more sinister messages.
Tricia Deighton, who plays psychic cleaner and hippy craft shop owner Annie, gave a good strong performance, and I particularly liked the séance scene which adds a note of comedy to the increasingly tense story line. McFadden and Simons are convincing as the unfortunate purchasers, whose emotions run the gamut from disbelief, through increasing concern to terror.
Michael Holt’s costume design is very effective at helping portray the roles of the different characters; Annie’s long earrings and scarf tied round her head, are typically bohemian and computer engineer Chris’s geek credentials are obvious from his Pink Floyd t-shirt and baseball boots.
Lighting and sound are likewise used skilfully throughout the performance, helping to build the atmosphere of suspense, with a low, rumbling sound accompanying the ghostly visions and noises which the family initially attribute to the ancient and decrepit plumbing. Subtle lighting effects on the walls of the building suggest paranormal activity, and the spectral apparitions are very cleverly achieved. The audience were clearly drawn into this supernatural mystery, visibly and audibly reacting to some of the scarier moments.
The House on Cold Hill is inspired by James’ own experience of buying and living in a supposedly haunted manor and lends the tale authenticity. I could have sworn that the temperature in the auditorium dropped when a supernatural event was about to happen; planned, coincidence or something else?
images: Helen Maybanks