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The Haunting Of Hill House review at the Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool – ‘blunt and daft’

Chipo Chung and Emily Bevan in The Haunting of Hill House at Liverpool Playhouse. Photo: Gary Calton

We carry our ghosts with us. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel is one of the most haunting stories in American literature. It’s been filmed twice, brilliantly by Robert Wise in 1963 and execrably by Jan de Bont in 1999, but while Anthony Neilson’s adaption is a reasonably faithful one, the production is blunt and thumping – and ever so slightly daft.

The mysterious Dr Montague invites a selected group of people to join him in a study of Hill House, a sprawling abandoned building with a tragic backstory, the source of much local fear and rumour. Among his party is Eleanor, a troubled young woman who has spent much of her life caring for her dying mother. The building immediately begins to exert a hold on its new inhabitants, its internal geography seems to shift, its atmosphere is oppressive. But a question hangs over how much of the characters’ experiences have been generated by the demons they’ve brought with them.

Jackson’s novel was full of suppressed desire and sublimation, and the 1963 film was a rarely bettered exercise in the gradual building of dread and the potency of the unseen. But Melly Still’s staging – a co-production with Hammer – seems to share Ghost Stories’ erroneous conviction that the best way to scare an audience is to hurl things at them. There is a lot of banging and shrieking, an unnecessary amount of light bulb flare.

Hammer has ventured into theatre before, in 2013, with a version of The Turn of The Screw at the Almeida which spelled out in capital letters everything that was ambiguous in the text. Something similar happens here. The production design is also something to behold, though not always in a good way. Props glide on and off set – an ambulant drinks cabinet is a real highlight – and there’s an overreliance on video, on mystery mist and upsetting wallpaper, digital debris and scuttling shadow children, the kind of swirling virtual backdrops in which Treguard would feel right at home.
Amid all this Emily Bevan is a strong central presence; as Eleanor, she manages to emotionally ground some of the production’s more wayward and absurd elements. Chipo Chung also makes the most of the outwardly more confident and bohemian Theodora, but they’re both swimming against a strong tide. While Neilson’s adaption is far from blind to the book’s subversive undertones and its influence, this feels like Shirley Jackson for those reared on Paranormal Activity and an endless wave of horror film remakes.

To be fair, the over-the-top quality and campy Freudian excess are actually quite entertaining at times and there are a couple of good wine-spilling jolts, but all too often it feels like the production team has taken something heavy to the text – something like, say, a hammer.

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A heavy-handed and jump-scare reliant staging of Shirley Jackson’s classic American ghost story