Review: The House on Cold Hill at the Norwich Theatre Royal

Halloween is long gone, but thankfully a little bit of horror is always in season. The House on Cold Hill, based on Peter James’ novel, centres around a family who have moved from Brighton to an abandoned monk’s abbey turned decadent home. Little do they know that their new gothic house is – you guessed it – haunted. This is a very typical ghost story set-up, but the choice to set it in present day creates a refreshing twist on the genre, especially since this spectre is clearly tech savvy – a little ironic as the play itself did have a few technical difficulties in the first half. There is an especially creative use of an Alexa that works doubly well if, like me, you already find that little electrical eavesdropper ominous.

The play’s main cast was very impressive both in star quality and in performances: The parents were played by Strictly Winner and Holby City star Joe McFadden and Eastender’s Rita Simons. They were the centre of the play, but in my opinion, Simons’ had the strongest performance and I found myself focussed entirely on her every time she graced the stage. Among the supporting actors the stand out for me was theatre veteran Annie Deighton’s performance as the mystic hippie Annie. The quirky medium is a common feature of ghost stories and can be campy in a bad way, but here Deighton fully committed to the absurd characterisation and really sold what could have just been a laughable cliché. For me the only character faux par was Charlie Clements’ Chris; there was an overuse of outdated geek quips aimed at him, and his twitchiness didn’t seem natural. This wasn’t entirely the actor’s fault, as he could’ve been given more room for character development in the script, but compared to others on stage Chris felt a little flat.

The play’s use of a single set was very effective, since they didn’t need to think about changing the staging, which consisted of a large gothic living room with a window to the outdoors and with stairs leading to an upstairs, of which we could only see the inward facing windows. These upstairs windows were intelligently used through lighting and silhouettes to show the audience when action took place behind them. Also, as there were so many visible doors and windows, I found myself constantly looking all around trying to figure out where the next glimpse of something spooky would come from. It kept me on edge throughout the play, which in my opinion is always a plus for a scary piece.

Don’t worry though, even if you aren’t the type of person who enjoys being frightened, this play is still for you as the balance between jump scares and laughs is definitely tilted towards the lighter side. There were lots of humorous moments in the play, ranging from gags on generational differences between adults and teens to self referential jokes on the main actors’ previous career moments – watch out for a subtle I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here joke and a not so subtle Strictly Come Dancing one. The humour worked well apart from the fact that at certain points the line between what was intended to be funny and what the audience were laughing at was hard to define. However, even if they were laughing at the wrong moments there was a great atmosphere created by the communal jumps and giggles, showing that this play brings something for everyone whether or not they’re lovers of all things scary.

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Emily Taithe