Being scared has never been quite as much fun as it is in the stage adaptation of bestselling author Peter James’ supernatural thriller, The House on Cold Hill.
A distinct chill is discernible in the air at Milton Keynes Theatre thanks to the arrival of this entertaining play, which is described by the cast and creatives as a “modern day ghost story”.
All things considered, the production neatly fulfils its brief. The action occurs in a sprawling country house where things go bump in the night. The cast includes a geeky ghost hunter, a madcap medium, and a sceptical but likeable family. The everyday gadgets that we all now rely on are heavily featured and, at times, seem to be controlled by the spirit world.
This production is not so scary that it will send shivers down your spine, but the twists and turns will keep you gripped and there are moments that will tickle your funny bone. Expect to be intrigued rather than intimidated, amused rather than alarmed and somewhat spooked rather than totally terrified.
Cold Hill House is a huge converted monastery in the Sussex countryside that has stood empty for the last forty years. When Ollie Harcourt successfully buys the historic property at auction, he and his wife Caro move their belongings – and their typically unimpressed teenage daughter Jade – from Brighton to what they hope will be their “forever home”: a legacy to pass on to future generations.
However, the family’s dream home quickly becomes the stuff of nightmares; and it’s not just because the dilapidated building needs extensive restoration work. Rumours of “The Grey Lady” are rife among the locals and it is not long before she seems to be making her presence felt.
Is there a phantom with unfinished business haunting the building? Or is there a more pragmatic explanation for the strange events that inhabitants experience? The House on Cold Hill certainly keeps us guessing!
Peter James is best known for writing crime novels, but his 2015 book The House on Cold Hill was apparently inspired by his own experience of living in a haunted house. The tale sometimes feels a little clichéd but never too far-fetched and I am convinced that this must be because the author has drawn on his own eerie encounters with the inexplicable.
Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of the book is directed by Ian Talbot and features a company of eight performers. Leading the cast are Joe McFadden and Rita Simons as the new owners of Cold Hill House, advertising man turned website designer Ollie Harcourt and his wife Caro, a solicitor.
Joe and Rita are likeable personalities who have sashayed off the dance floor and scrambled out of the jungle, respectively, to star in The House on Cold Hill. We know BAFTA nominated actor Joe from BBC hospital drama Holby City, and as the winner of BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing 2017. Award-winning actress Rita Simons played Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders and was a contestant in ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here 2018.
Having leads from popular and reality television will obviously not harm the producers’ efforts to get bums on seats during the nationwide tour of The House on Cold Hill. This aside, Joe and Rita are both skilled actors. They sparkle as individuals and have real chemistry together. This makes sure that the audience warms to Ollie and Caro, and their story, immediately.
The Harcourt’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Jade, is played by former Hollyoaks actress Persephone Swales-Dawson, who is making her professional stage debut in The House on Cold Hill. She is well cast as the awkward teen, delivering some of the best lines in the play with the requisite adolescent attitude.
Jade is permanently attached to her mobile, FaceTiming her best friend. Throughout the production, Jade affectionately winds-up her well-balanced, happily married middle-class parents. In true thriller style, each member of the Harcourt family has some unnerving moments during solo scenes. Jade is more susceptible to whispers about ghosts than her parents, and this means she treads a fine line between being excited and scared whenever something untoward happens.
The relationship between Ollie, Caro and Jade is a bit corny but it is believably captured, with the family dynamics playing a big part in sustaining our interest. This is important as the only other human visitors to Cold Hill House are IT geek Chris, dotty cleaner/clairvoyant Annie, builder Phil and the local vicar.
Charlie Clements (who played Bradley Branning in EastEnders) is initially unrecognisable as IT nerd (and wannabe poltergeist pursuer) Chris. Unfailingly, his demeanour and body language perfectly portray a nervy, nerdy young man who struggles to hide his fascination with the Harcourt family’s new home.
The theatrical effects are more serviceable than special; projections, lights and noises combine to create the suggestion of paranormal activity. In fact, the most tangible technological wizardry probably comes in the form of the Alexa that Ollie receives for his birthday. This voice-activated talking device is almost part of the family – until its dulcet tones become the most disturbing presence on the stage.
The plot is undemanding but entertaining, with well-devised and well-delivered dialogue. The audience particularly enjoyed a reference to Strictly. Elsewhere, a “get me out of here” remark from Jade cites that other popular reality show.
All the mod cons are seamlessly integrated into the story (laptops and WiFi, Snapchat, Insta, FaceTime, Alexa) to keep the narrative as up-to-date as it is possible to be. There are ghostly goings-on aplenty, and giggles to be had too as the family negotiate their new home, new neighbours and new experiences (including a séance and an attempted exorcism).
These days, moving house is said to be one of the most stressful things that you can do – without the property you invest in being haunted! The House on Cold Hill is perhaps not very sinister, but it is a satisfyingly spooky and suspenseful production.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.