The House on Cold Hill (3 stars)

The House on Cold Hill

credit: Helen Maybanks

Workman-like horror theatre

Following on from Peter James' successful scripts for Not Dead Enough, The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple, The House on Cold Hill takes the atmosphere of mystery into more supernatural territory. A family moves into a deserted house and find themselves haunted by a vengeful woman. While they attempt to discover the reasons for the spectral appearances, their strong familial relationships are tested by the intrusion of local superstitions and a dark history of marital infidelity and betrayal.

The plot is familiar – despite a powerful ensemble cast, the dialogue sounds forced and artificial and the revelations predictable. And the clues are liberally dropped, with a red herring subplot that only briefly seems a plausible, secular interpretation of the ghostly visits. Yet at the heart of James' script is a particular set of anxieties – the power of the past to disrupt contemporary life, the tensions placed on the nuclear family by unwanted presences, the conflict between the city and the countryside, with Brighton becoming a symbol of safety and comfort against the threatening, empty and lonely rural house.

Ultimately, the discovery of the ghost's intentions, which are given a series of spectacular coups de théâtre, is merely a false ending, as evil triumphs over the well-meaning but hopelessly unprepared family. It has, in this, the predictability of tragedy, with death prophesied and signposted clearly by a possessed computer and the warnings of vicar, builder and ghost-hunter alike. Joe McFadden, however, as the father, has a lively energy rather than a fatalistic majesty and his relationship with his wife, played with a broad gusto by Rita Simons, captures an emotional warmth that is a harsh contrast against the ghost's own biography.

An impressive set depicts the house as a looming, threatening presence, and the pacing is tight and even jaunty, yet it is in the subtext that House has the most power: beneath a predictable plot, the corruption of the family, the horror of home ownership and the suspicion of neighbours offer a more resonant, and secular, nightmare.

The House on Cold Hill

A modern day ghostly thriller. When the Harcourt family move into the dilapidated Georgian mansion in the remote Sussex countryside, they quickly realise they aren't the only residents … A new play by Peter James.

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