The House on Cold Hill is, in many ways, a good old fashioned haunted house story. But we’re in the 21st century and curiously enough the spookiest presence on stage turns out to be a voice activated Alexa device.
Ollie (Joe McFadden), Caro (Rita Simons) and their daughter Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson) are just moving into their new country house home. He’s a former ad executive starting his own web design business, she’s a solicitor and Jade studies at a local college. It soon transpires the house they’ve purchased has a macabre history, most recently with the death of the previous owner (which we’ve seen in a prelude to the main action) but also going back to its medieval roots as a monastery. Does a similar fate await its latest occupants and can they learn from its history?
Joining them are Ollie’s new colleague Chris (Charlie Clements) who’s a wizard with all things techie; Annie (Tricia Deighton), his friend who senses the spirit world and wangles herself a job as Ollie and Caro’s cleaner (but why is she so keen to do this?); and the local vicar the Rev. Fortinbras (Padraig Lynch), who proves to be less helpful in a spiritual crisis than you’d hope.
It’s a long time since I’ve been to a proper theatrical ghost story. Handling this kind of thing with a live audience requires a careful touch, both from the cast and the director. Underplay it and you miss the thrills. Overplay it and the audience soon gives up suspending its collective disbelief and the whole thing becomes unintentionally funny.
Fortunately we’re in safe hands here with director Ian Talbot who is experienced with Peter James’ work (and most recently directed the completely different but completely brilliant Eugenius!). He lays on the thrills and apparitions subtly at first (you might even miss the first one or two). The tension builds palpably. Ollie’s conversion from someone looking for a rational explanation to a firm believer in the ghostly is perhaps a little under developed, but Joe McFadden does a convincing job. And if we’re talking convincing then Persephone Swales-Dawson is every inch the irritated and irritating hormonal teenager, although she overcomes this to become more likeable and endearing in the second act. At the centre of all this is Rita Simons as Caro who is utterly believable and watchable throughout. She really makes you feel this is her family and her home.
You have to be ready to go with it to enjoy a ghost story, especially on stage, no matter what your personal beliefs are when it comes to such things. If you’re at all sceptical then the fragile distinction between finding it thrilling or finding it ridiculous will come crumbling down. The House on Cold Hill treads the line just about right and has the distinct innovation of having some voice activated computer software as one of the characters.
The House on Cold Hill is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 26 January 2019 and then on tour.