You could file this play under ‘horror’ or ‘whodunnit’ and no-one could complain. But if you poked it into the ‘psychological thriller’ section you might get closer to the nub.
Our director, Oliver Menzies, nurtured aspects from each of those traditions in this three-act play. Certainly no-one would have guessed this was his debut show. The seven-strong cast maintained their roles, with a bow to the Stanislavsky approach, by richly imagining and holding their character even in recessive moments.
The ‘Haunting of Hill House’, based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel, was adapted for the stage a few years later by Andrew Leslie. Inevitably, the characters assemble in an old country home six miles from the village. There are plenty of rumours about strange occurrences and hauntings.
It’s certainly the kind of house that would get low ratings as an Airbnb. Mrs Dudley, who pops in to lay the table for breakfast and dinner, is not getting into any role of servitude. She’s back home in the village, as soon as she can. But why are so many of the doors locked? Is it true that a nun was bricked up behind the walls?
There is a very up-to-date feel about Dr Montague. His focus is on the scientific. “Ladies and gentlemen an important investigation into psychic phenomenon is about to commence!” The team must maintain notebooks of everything they feel and hear. Strict safeguarding principles must operate within the group. Get settled in your rooms before dark. Keep together and don’t get spooked!
Mind you, one of the guys in the team already looks like he’s going to be a pest. Can’t women researchers get a break! But pretty soon there’s more banging than bonking. What is that noise? And what is that strange cold spot in the house that they all notice? Who’s been writing your name in big letters all along the wall? If you ever had the chance, would you really want to live in a house like this?
By the time we finish, we have been led convincingly through every spooky moment, each incident worse than the last. Translucent curtains dappled in red spotlights conjured that feel of mystery and foreboding. Tension mounted. But we won’t spoil the plot.
At the end, the characters return to quite contemporary themes: where is your home and what is your home?
This is Curzon Theatre Productions’ second show, following their crafty adaption of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ in September, and we’re looking forward to their next production.
With two breaks in the play, there was ample chance to take the open air spiral staircase down into the black basement of the Curzon pub. It could almost be part of the play. If you’ve got a penchant for glitzy ABBA karaoke tunes you might catch a drag version of ‘I Have A Dream’ in the bar during the interval. The Curzon is certainly a friendly and wacky venue that is totally supportive of the theatre upstairs.
What could be better? It’s hard to say. But could it be shorter? Two intervals can lead a lazy audience to wonder away despite a compelling story.
The ‘Haunting of Hill House’ is a beautifully carved tale of horror and psychological spookery. Look out for the Curzon’s next production!
Photos by Alistair Lock