Peter James’s best-selling ghost story haunts Leeds Grand Theatre this week as part of a national tour.
Inspired by a true story, The House on Cold Hill features television stars Joe McFadden and Rita Simons as Ollie and Caro Harcourt — a couple who move into a great old property with a secret past, only to discover they’re not alone…
What makes a haunted house so frightening? Many of the chills in a good ghost story come from an imposing mood or tone. It’s all about forbodings, which is something The House on Cold Hill struggles to pitch evenly from the outset.
Shaun McKenna’s workmanlike adaptation is wordy and slow moving, punctuated only by the odd jump scare or jarring sound effect. It’s also surprisingly formulaic, borrowing from haunted house B-movie traditions whilst hinting at a sprawling backstory which overpromises yet barely delivers.
The show scores better with practical effects which are reasonably well-achieved, if not overly telegraphed in the writing, so you can often see the stunt coming from a country mile. A randomly placed anglepoise mirror in the middle of a room, you ask? I wonder what could possibly appear there… Did the vicar just leave the door open behind him? Perhaps somebody should close it…
There’s also a strange reliance on contemporary gadgets such as iBooks, iPhones, and an Alexa Personal Assistant (a talking radio thing, to you and me). These offer a novel change to flaming candlesticks and flickering shadows, but do little to enhance the mood and seem more like appeasing gimmicks. Such tech will also negatively date the production in a few year’s time, but that may not be an issue.
Despite some old-fashioned execution which makes the play appear like an Agatha Christie mystery, there’s at least a wealth of production detail to enjoy and some of the direction makes good use of the height built into the set. But unlike The Woman in Black, which ingeniously brings the hauntings and apparitions into the real-world space of the auditorium, The House on Cold Hill keeps its terrors firmly upstage and distant, offering little engagement with the audience.
The company work their best with the material, with Persephone Swales-Dawson pitching an underwritten teenager role with subtle nuances. Tricia Deighton provides some scatty comedy relief as a medium, whilst Charlie Clements hands over an eager geek as Chris. Sadly, the characters start from little and develop no further, so there’s not much concern for their plight.
Joe McFadden and Rita Simons lead as Ollie and Caro, a couple initially at odds with each other over the possibility of their home being haunted. Their robust performances are earnest but there’s scant chemistry between the two, and Ollie’s snap acceptance towards the existence of ghosts — and the bizarre theory of how he might defeat them — doesn’t quite ring true.
The House on Cold Hill is an innocuous production with a sprinkle of interesting ideas, but it’s ultimately a predictable and lifeless haunted house tale which ticks most boxes in the formula without scoring many scares. A ghost story lacking true spirit.
Cast: Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, Charlie Clements, Persephone Swales-Dawson, Tricia Deighton, Padraig Lynch, Leon Stewart, Simon Balcon. Director: Ian Talbot Writer: Peter James Adaptor: Shaun McKenna Theatre: Leeds Grand Theatre Running time: 140 minutes Dates: Monday 29th April to Saturday 4th May 2019.
Tickets: leedsgrandtheatre.com or call Box Office on 0844 848 2700.