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Misery

Stephen King, adapted for the stage by Simon Moore
Popular Productions
King's Head
(2005)

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It's always a challenge to adapt a play following a successful film and in many cases the result is disappointing. Misery however, is one of those darker pieces that lends itself to the stage very well: two characters only, one of whom never leaves the action; a single set; a climate of fear building to the ultimate climax where one kills the other, but which one?

From the outset, the audience knows it is in for a bumpy ride: the smoke effects, the chilling music and the prison-like set (designed by Claire Lyth). We get a glimpse of the backstory of the romantic novelist Paul Sheldon (played by Michael Praed) via a video clip of him collecting an award. He is hardly a likeable character: patronising, arrogant, slightly vacuous, he talks down to his audience, especially the women he writes for, vastly underestimating them - something he will later learn to regret.

When the curtains open, it's an entirely different scene. Paul appears to be in a kind of depressing cellar with bars for windows. He is lying in bed, bloody and bruised, and there's an ominous looking drip by his side. But even more worrying is his sole companion, Annie Wilkes (played by Susan Penhaligon), dumpy, unkempt, a loner, but who gives a good account of herself as his saviour. He'd been in a bad car accident (his fault - he'd been drinking) and broken his legs. She dragged him back to her house and proclaimed herself his "Number One Fan". People who saw the 1990 film directed by Rob Reiner will remember this as the iconic line and it is therefore a tribute to Susan Penhaligon's skill that she was able to deliver it without it seeming like a cliché.

It becomes clear that Annie isn't really a fan of Paul's at all - but rather of his creation, Misery Chastaine, a nineteenth century Barbara Cartland-style heroine. And when she finds out that Paul has had the temerity to kill her off in childbirth in his latest novel, Annie flips, threatening to kill him unless he does the decent thing and brings her back to life. Demanding a chapter a day, Annie is the ultimate cure for writer's block.

Susan Penhaligon makes a worryingly convincing Annie in a role that won a Best Actress Oscar for Kathy Bates. She manages to be plausibly (but annoyingly) nice to begin with, yet is able to swing into raging madness and deep depression where she's even more dangerous. At times, she is even sympathetic as we realise that she is in the throes of mental illness and is not just evil.

It's interesting that we're set up not to like Paul; he's a drink-driver after all who makes his money writing patronising novels that he doesn't believe in. Michael Praed (best known for the TV Series Robin of Sherwood and Dynasty) carries off this aspect of the character very well. He is less successful in convincing us of his fear in the situation. He treats Annie as though she's an irritating old Aunt he is forced to spend Christmas with, rather than someone who is quite likely to split his head in two if he doesn't come up with the goods.

Simon Moore's adaptation of Stephen King's novel is tense and edgy. Moore won a BAFTA for his screenplay of the mini-series Traffik, later made into a Hollywood film. He is working with good original material here, nevertheless he builds the tension very well, creating interesting backstory for Annie (we get hints of why she is the way she is). There are some memorable moments as well. We know, for example, that Paul is really in trouble when she forces him to swallow his medication with water that she uses to clean the floor with. The game of cat and mouse between Paul and Annie is well measured; Annie controls Paul by withdrawing his medication, while Paul wrests it back when he is withholding the end of the novel. There were some flaws though. The incident where Annie cripples Paul came a little late in the proceedings and might have had more impact, had it happened earlier on.

The director, Alan Cohen, used the space at the King's Head to good effect, maximising the impact of Annie's madness by having her pop up out of the darkness at various unexpected points. The music was particularly chilling.

You probably won't have nightmares having seen this production, but it's an interesting perspective on control, escapism and Number One Fans.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart