The House on Cold Hill
Peter James adapted by Shaun McKenna
Joshua Andrews, Peter James and The Booking Office
Opera House, Manchester
In the last few years, author Peter James has established a secondary career with theatre adaptations of his detective suspense novels. The process has not been entirely satisfactory; on the printed page, forensic detail adds authenticity and helps to conceal plot twists that are all too easy to spot when the story transfers into the live theatre environment.
The House on Cold Hill, however, is not a detective thriller but rather a ghost story so stands to benefit from the fact that theatre audiences are accustomed to suspending disbelief. Impressively, James transforms potential weaknesses into strengths. The story is set in the present day with Internet access and mobile phones; so genre features like an isolated location without means of communication cannot be exploited. However, some of the more convincing scares arise from modern-day appliances behaving as if they have been demonically possessed. There are affectionate nods to the past. Back in the day, there might have been a hunchbacked laboratory assistant whereas now there is a twitchy, geeky tech wizard. James’s reputation as a thriller writer makes credible a conspiracy theory raised in the second act.
Ollie (Joe Mcfadden) strikes out as a freelance web site designer and moves his family (wife Caro—Rita Simons—and daughter Jade—Persephone Swales-Dawson) to The House on Cold Hill. The family are unaware that the house has a reputation as being haunted and, more significantly, previous owners have all been struck dead on their birthdays. Ollie’s 40th birthday is only a week away.
Director Ian Talbot is something of a tease. The play opens with a prologue detailing the fate of an earlier owner of the property that is stuffed full of Michael Holt’s supernatural special effects. Eerie noises echo through the theatre, lights flicker and ghostly images appear. Subsequent scenes, however, misdirect the audience by appearing to debunk the spiritual aspect of the story—screeching noises turn out to be a smoke alarm or air in the ancient heating pipes.
There have been a number of great haunted house stories and their common feature is that the supernatural element is pushed into the background. Richard Matheson emphasised the scientific significance of Hell House itself (the Mount Everest of haunted houses) while Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, with Hill House and The Overlook, concentrated on the psychological flaws of their protagonists.
In The House on Cold Hill, however, everything revolves around the ghost story so, when supernatural elements are absent, the relatively brief running time seems to drag. There are ample opportunities to develop a subplot that would make the story much more engaging and exciting. The chance to exploit domestic familial drama is missed. Ollie and Caro have over-extended themselves to buy the property but, instead of arguing or allocating blame, accept with equanimity a massive repair bill that drains their finances. Rather than being a stroppy rebellious teen, Persephone Swales-Dawson’s Jade is quite sweet.
The second act, which crams in exposition and a conspiracy theory, feels crowded. The sequence of Ollie confronting the ghost effectively occurs off-stage, which is an undeniable disappointment.
The House on Cold Hill is a fine attempt to update the classic ghost story to the present day let down by the failure to exploit the dramatic potential of the domestic setting.