The Haunting of Hill House review – unsettling tale of a spooked heroine

Liverpool Playhouse
A young woman explores the ghostly recesses of a shape-shifting old house – and her own troubled mind – in this enjoyable Shirley Jackson adaptation

“Houses aren’t haunted. People are,” suggests Theodora, one of the people gathered by Dr Montague to spend time in the ill-famed Hill House. It gets to the heart of Shirley Jackson’s deservedly famous supernatural novel, twice filmed and now reimagined for the stage by writer Anthony Neilson and director Melly Still. The ghostly hand of projection specialists 59 Productions is also in evidence.

Anyone hoping for the giggly, spooky shenanigans of Ghost Stories, or even the icy, heart-stopping surprise of The Woman in Black, may come away disappointed. Hill House does something different and more interesting, even if it sometimes overdoes the bumps in the night. Less is always more here, and there are some clever and unsettling sleights of hand, particularly in the way it plays with perspective.

Alone in the dark … Martin Turner as Dr Montague and Chipo Chung as Theodora.
Alone in the dark … Martin Turner as Dr Montague and Chipo Chung as Theodora. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

From its opening moments, when the headlights of the car Eleanor is driving to Hill House dazzle us, the narrative takes you not just into the dark recesses of an apparently shape-shifting house, but into a haunted mind. It owes far more to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw than to A Nightmare on Elm Street.

At its heart is the highly strung and susceptible Eleanor, a young woman scared of the world and longing to be rescued from both her situation and herself. She is living with the sister she has always resented, after spending 11 years caring for their mother alone. Dr Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House is a means of escape. It’s 1959, and she longs for love and seduction, and it comes – but not in the manner she expected.

This is a technically ambitious production, and some of the joins still show. It sadly junks the beautiful symmetry of Jackson’s original ending, and reveals its hand too early. Emily Bevan is terrific as Eleanor, but we probably need to like and trust her more early on. Some of the other characters, including the slippery Dr Montague (Martin Turner), need beefing up. But there is delicate work in the relationship between Eleanor and the confident Theodora (Chipo Chung).

This is an undoubtedly enjoyable evening that carries the unsettling suggestion we can only save ourselves – because we are all alone in the dark.

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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