Review: The Haunting Of Hill House (Liverpool Playhouse)

 

The Haunting Of Hill House began life in 1959 as a novel by American writer Shirley Jackson, and there have since been two film versions. The most notable of these is The Haunting, a fine 1963 black and white film which when it gets one of its frequent television screenings is usually described in the listing magazines as one of the most frightening films ever made. Now playwright Anthony Neilson and director Melly Still have adapted the tale for the stage, interestingly with Hammer (of vintage horror movie fame) as one of the production partners. Liverpool Playhouse no doubt hope to repeat the memorable success of Ghost Stories, which following its Liverpool premiere in 2010 enjoyed a lengthy run in the West End.

And there’s every chance they will. Each half of The Haunting Of Hill House starts with a bang – literally, jolting the audience out of their relaxed conversations with minimal warning. They’re followed by quite possibly the most remarkable special effects ever seen on a Liverpool stage. At first we’re taken through a wonderfully created forest of falling trees as Eleanor, the central character, approaches Hill House. Once there, it’s as if (as Eleanor remarks) the house is somehow alive, with strange noises, moving furniture, disorientating changes of perspective, enveloping darkness and much more. A distinctive feature of the original book (and the 1959 film) is that the supernatural is often suggested rather than made manifest, which arguably makes the effect even more unsettling – it’s been said that the story evokes ‘terror’ rather than ‘horror’. That’s also the case here, and when we do see something more substantial (which happens on a few unforgettable occasions) it’s all the more sensational.

Eleanor (brilliantly played by Emily Bevan) has been invited to Hill House by Dr Montague, who’s assembled a group to investigate the house’s reputation for paranormal events. He tells us about the tragic deaths that have occurred there, and how it’s now unoccupied. Eleanor’s sensitive (acutely so) and thoughtful, with a very troubled past. There’s another tremendous performance from Chipo Chung as Theodora, a strikingly contrasting character. Sassy and flamboyantly assertive, she’s come to terms with her lesbianism and encourages Eleanor to escape her inner demons and accept that she is not a social misfit, just ‘different’ from most other people. But Eleanor is strangely and ominously drawn to Hill House, and Theodora has to battle to rescue her from its influence.

By comparison the two male characters seem somewhat pale and thinly drawn, though both are excellently played. Dr Montague (Martin Turner) has an academic’s rather cold detachment (so detached he has difficulty telling the women apart – or is this because they’re like two halves of the same person, Theodora the essence of what Eleanor could and should be?). Luke (Joseph May) is a cynical, wisecracking journalist and – in a play that takes us to some very dark places – has some of the funniest lines. There’s humour too from a comically unwelcoming housekeeper (Jane Guernier), who it would have been nice to have seen more of (though for understandable reasons she’s always out of the house before it gets dark). Also present is a professional medium (Angela Clerkin): an obvious charlatan, or is she?

If you miss those classic BBC supernatural dramas that always used to be a part of this time of year, The Haunting Of Hill House is definitely for you. Like them, it’s a complex, psychologically penetrating story which also knows how to scare you witless.

*****  Intelligent, sophisticated horror – and electrifyingly scary

The Haunting Of Hill House continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 16 January. For more information, click HERE.