The Haunting

Hugh Janes, adapted from the ghost stories of Charles Dickens
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

The Haunting publicity image

If you want a sure-fire method of filling a theatre the answer appears to be to put on a thriller - and the more scary the better. Hints of a ‘dark and terrifying secret’ and ‘a journey to the very edge of terror and beyond’ had the people of Guildford flocking in to fill every seat and to wait with anticipation the delights of being scared out of their wits. At least half the audience were teenagers, and it was a joy to see them there, in spite of the noise they made chatting beforehand, but a rapt and attentive silence descended the moment the play began apart, that is, from more that one scream.

Dickens was fascinated by the spirit world and dabbled in the occult himself, and these factors are present in the story which takes place in the study of an old manor house where a young book dealer is employed to catalogue and value an impressive collection of rare and antique books. Simon Scullion has created a study which immediately demonstrates the status of the owner. Walls are crumbling, the ceiling has fallen in, and everything is desperately cold as the wind howls eerily around the building and through the cracks in the structure. The walls are lined with old and dusty books and large windows reflect the inside as well as revealing the moor where trees under the darkening skies are lashed by a coming storm. The scene is set.

Sound designer Jonathan Suffolk must really have had a ball with this one and gives full reign to his talents, aided and abetted by Nick Richings' lighting. Knocking is heard on walls, books fly off shelves, a mystical voice cries “Help me”, doors bang, the wind whistles, an owl hoots (the death owl) and there are enough bangs, flashes of lightening and crashes of thunder to have everyone jumping from their seats, especially when the lightening dramatically reveals something hanging from the tree outside the window. Director Hugh Wooldridge cleverly intersperses the drama with sessions of quiet and calm dialogue, so absorbing as book dealer and house owner relate their stories that the sudden shocks are totally unexpected.

Sean McGuire (who began his professional career at the age of five and is probably as well known for his musical talents as his film and TV work) is David Filde the book dealer, an appealing young man diligently performing the task he has been set, but there is another reason for his presence at the manor which is only revealed towards the end.

Paul Nicholas (a familiar face from theatre and TV as well as director and producer) is Lord Gray, the owner, more interested the monetary value of the books than their historical importance and dismissive of tales of visitations - until he begins to hear things too.

A little comedy is inherent here and there, but not enough to lighten the atmosphere and ruin the feeling of suspense.

Gripping The Haunting certainly is, and fascinating too as the stories told by the two men tie them together is more ways than could possibly be imagined, and the conclusion is a very strange and weirdly intriguing surprise. Well recommended but - as they say - don’t watch it alone!

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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