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.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Haunting of Hill House review – a spectre in search of a feast
Anthony Neilson’s enjoyable production doesn’t fully translate Shirley Jackson’s astonishing prose into stage action

Susannah Clapp

20, Dec, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
'Textbook terror': How The Haunting of Hill House rewrote horror's rules
Authors from Joe Hill to Andrew Michael Hurley consider why this 1959 novel, poised for a Netflix adaptation, holds such enduring power to chill

Alison Flood

11, Oct, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Agoraphobia and an unhappy marriage: the real horror behind The Haunting of Hill House
Stephen King says The Haunting of Hill House is ‘nearly perfect’. But can a Netflix TV adaptation capture Shirley Jackson’s dark visions of duty and domesticity?

Aida Edemariam

22, Oct, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Carrie review – Stephen King shocker gets a High School Musical makeover
A mesmerising performance by Evelyn Hoskins as the flame-haired teenage avenger fires this revival of the RSC’s slaughterhouse Cinderella

Lyn Gardner

07, May, 2015 @4:17 PM

Article image
The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary! review – madcap Flaubert farce falls flat
Flaubert’s dry comic observations are replaced with full-on slapstick in a show that inserts dinosaur costumes and some awkward metatheatrical banter

Lyn Gardner

11, Feb, 2016 @12:14 PM

Article image
The Alchemist – review

Robert Icke's production slowly but successfully bridges the gap between 17th-century tricksters and 21st-century bankers, writes Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

21, Sep, 2012 @12:31 PM

Article image
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin review – beyond spooky
A sympathetic biography argues for a feminist reappraisal of a tortured genius of American gothic

Sarah Churchwell

10, Feb, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Star review – Merseyside music hall reopens with bizarre bill
This celebration of the 19th-century Star theatre is neither boring nor educational – just as Ken Dodd advised its writer, Michael Wynne

Alfred Hickling

14, Dec, 2016 @2:53 PM

Article image
I Am Thomas review – singalong-a-blasphemy in Simon Armitage show
With lyrics from Armitage and showstopping arrangements by Iain Johnstone, Told By An Idiot fashion an irreverent musical about a 17th-century atheist

Alfred Hickling

26, Feb, 2016 @3:39 PM

The Matchbox – review

Frank McGuinness's play about a bereaved mother has a tragic power familiar from his work as a translator of the Greeks, writes Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

24, Jun, 2012 @5:15 PM