The Haunting Of Hill House

Chesil Theatre  Chesil Theatre, Winchester  Mark Ponsford  7 April 2024

The first thing to be said of Chesil Theatre’s current production of The Haunting Of Hill House is that it’s a technical triumph. Set, sound, lighting and effects are all bang-on, and characteristic of the excellence we know we’re going to experience when we visit the Chesil. It’s also wise to try and keep one’s finger on the pulse, as the majority of the Chesil’s week-long runs tend to sell out very quickly – as has this one, to the extent that an extra performance was added last Friday. Having bought my tickets a couple of months ago, I was delighted when recently invited to review the current production.

Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting Of Hill House is as old as I am (it alarms me to admit), and its popularity has been further maintained by stage, screen and TV adaptations, although in his programme note Director Jim Glaister describes the 1999 version as “just awful”, which has already prompted me to search for it! This current production is of the first stage dramatisations, written in 1964 by F Andrew Leslie, and there are the inevitable moments, certainly by comparison to today’s standards, where it creaks somewhat on its hinges. But the same can be said of The Mousetrap, this play’s senior by some years and, in this day and age, it somehow adds to the charm of the piece.

It’s down to the writing more than anything that the eeriness pervading the evening becomes somewhat dissipated. It’s very much a play of two halves, the first act being, for me, the more effective overall, with the tensions and uncertainties slowly exerting their grip on our attention and senses. Even so, and again I feel due to the structure of the play, everyone seems pretty unconcerned in the scene following the first spectral bangings on doors and walls, whereas the likes of me would have been out of the place and fifty miles away in record time. (I’m easily spooked, and this production certainly afforded me some effective moments.)

Act Two becomes for a while, whether or not intentionally, a rather comedic affair, with the arrival of Dr Montague’s Wife along with cohort Arthur. Mrs Montague in particular, is revealed as a Psychic bordering on Battleaxe (think Imelda Staunton as Madame Arcati), and this, along with a number of dialogue clichés, veers towards camp comedy thriller territory. It may have been the author’s intention, but it sits somewhat at odds with all that’s gone on previously, and does lessen the tension – at least for a while, until Hill House unleashes further terrors, possibly as a result of the oft-referred-to, yet never seen planchette. (All planchette scenes take place offstage, as does another significant moment in the first half.)

Rather than risk any major “spoilers” (the play’s title sets its stall out clearly enough), I’d say it’s preferable anyway to simply attend, and let the piece take you where it’s heading, led by a cracking line-up of performers. Matt Ellison brings great strength and a much-needed gravitas to both his role (Dr Montague) and the play overall, and Tom Dangerfield, as Luke, delivers a strong, intense performance, rich in detail. The increasingly complex Eleanor is portrayed with great understanding by Amelie Drew, while Theodora is played with an enigmatic complexity by Charlotte Richfield-Betteridge. Gina Hough’s strong and formidable performance as Mrs Montague finds an excellent foil in Marcus Whitfield’s Arthur, who actually has some of the best lines, and knows exactly how to deliver them to best effect. Completing the cast is Helen Bliault, effective and ominous (and an audience favourite) in the smaller role of Mrs Dudley, the ominous Housekeeper without which, it seems, no haunted house is ever complete!

All in all, two hours of excellent and absorbing entertainment await you all this week behind that always-welcoming Little Red Door. And if you’re going with someone who needs a hand to hold… it might be worth double-checking, as darkness engulfs both stage and auditorium, just whose hand you ARE holding…