The Haunting of Hill House

Adapted by Anthony Neilson, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse in association with Sonia Friedman Productions and Hammer
Liverpool Playhouse

Chipo Chung as Theodora and Emily Bevan as Eleonora Credit: Gary Calton
Emily Bevan as Eleonora and Martin Turner as Dr Montague Credit: Gary Calton
Emily Bevan as Eleonora Credit: Gary Calton

The haunted house motif has always been the stuff of nightmares from gothic fiction through to Scooby Doo and Amityville. There’s nothing more compelling than a creaky old house.

With its adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, Liverpool Playhouse has certainly tapped into the human fascination with things that go bump in the night.

Take four strangers: a cynic, a neurotic, an eccentric and a socialite; throw them into a house with an uncanny resemblance to Dante’s Inferno and sit back and watch the fireworks. Nothing quite matches the thrill of watching others falling into the jaws of hell—especially from the cosy confines of a theatre seat.

Based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, the Playhouse has pulled out all the stops and some more for this, its Yuletide offering for 2015. Never before has that grand old stage creaked and howled so much.

Invited to stay at Hill House at the request of the enigmatic Dr Montague in the interests of paranormal investigation, a trio of guest arrive for a night they will never forget. Hill House is more than just a house though. It lives, it breathes…

Central to the drama is the character of Eleanor: a troubled lady who may just be succumbing to psychosis. Emily Bevan plays this very complex and not to mention challenging role with an intriguing blend of fragility and hyperactivity.

A strong supporting cast play their roles with equal vigour and just as convincing mid-Atlantic accents. Martin Turner (Dr Montague) exudes idealism, while Joseph May (Luke) is the embodiment of b-movie masculinity. Chipo Chung’s Theodora meanwhile oozes sensuality.

Accomplished though the performances are, without doubt it’s the lavish production values which steal this particular show. Miriam Buether’s set simply brims with ingenuity. Eerie, spooky and full of surprises, the Playhouse’s full artillery is on display here.

From the moment a set of car headlights pierce the darkness, glowing like a demon’s eyes, the tricks and treats never stop. Whether it's ghostly doors revolving around the stage shrouded in mist or ladders that lead into the bowels of Hell, this production is packed with all things spooky and subliminal.

Light and sound also work splendidly to underscore the paranoia and fear unfolding before the eyes. If you like your knocking to be of the thunderous variety—and who doesn’t?—you will not be disappointed. If Hell has a symphony, this is what it may sound like.

With such an inventive set to feast the eyes upon, the narrative itself does become a trifle inconsequential. Although undeniably driven by plot (and effects) rather than character, there is just enough development in the Eleanor/Theo relationship to satisfy the die-hards.

Indeed, so strong is the spell cast by the set, the plot twist, when it eventually arrives, is barely noticed. The ending too—puzzling and disturbing in equal measures—is notable more for its technical execution than its thematic impact.

In a nutshell, The Haunting of Hill House is a production that delights in spectacle. Though a little in the way of more parody would have not gone amiss, as a slice of winter escapism this production can’t really be faulted.

“Sleep well and don’t have nightmares,” went the saying from a popular TV programme once upon a time. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t at the Playhouse last night.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick