Review: The Haunting of Hill House at the Liverpool Playhouse
December 25, 2015
FAMILIES eh! Who needs ’em? Husbands and wives? Scary stuff! You only have to watch Gene Wilder’s look of fear in Haunted Honeymoon, transfixed with forebodings, to appreciate the sheer terror men face at the prospect of exposing themselves to a life of wedded bliss.
In her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson took a slightly different look at domestic conventions. Just as the Cold War had separated the world into warring ideologies, so Jackson was planting one or two explosive devices beneath the whole idea of the American nuclear family.
In Jackson’s sort of family reunion, two men and two women are called to a haunted house; the patriarchal figure is Dr Montague (Martin Turner), a psychic researcher. Young buck Luke (Joseph May), in the book the heir to the property, is here a sceptical, wise-cracking journalist who plies Eleanor with drink. Both are played sympathetically and add a certain stability to proceedings but the chaps are essentially oblivious to the real action, which takes place inside the hearts and minds of the two women.
Eleanor (Emily Bevan) is nervous, highly-strung and repressed after years of caring for her demanding mother. In another age she might have ended up in the madhouse, but we don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Instead, it’s the haunted house and it’s Theodora (Chipo Chung), the worldly-wise ‘bohemian’, who might just have what it takes to soothe her primal fears.
Eleanor is haunted by children that don’t exist, a parent she can never please and the fear that her life will never match her long-lost dreams. But in Chung’s terrific performance Theo’s teasing, tempting friendship gives her, and us, hope of escaping the prison of our nightmares.
Director Melly Still has drawn out a compelling story from Anthony Neilson’s taut, clever adaptation, which throws in enough witty one-liners for some light relief from the gloom.
Special mention must go to the production team, a joint effort by the Everyman and Playhouse, Sonia Friedman Productions and Hammer. Set designer Miriam Buether, lighting designer Jack Knowles and projections by 59 Productions have created a stylish and atmospheric show, with inventive lighting and screen backdrops, even if the occasional attempts at sudden shock might be lost on a generation accustomed to regular movie frights.
This is not a jump-up horror or even a traditional ghost story but it is disturbing and entertaining and unfolds with a dramatic and genuinely unnerving finale.
The Haunting of Hill House runs at the Liverpool Playhouse until January 16.