The House on Cold Hill

Finally, Ollie and Caro have managed to buy the house of their dreams. Sure it’s a fixer upper, but what do you expect from a place that hasn’t seen a resident in 40 years? Or so they thought…who – or what else is living in the house on the cold hill?

Peter James’ House on Cold Hill was the latest play Dartford’s grand Orchard Theatre opened its red curtains to, and you’ll be pleased to know (or not, as the case may be) based on his own experiences of living in an haunted house.

I never used to be a fan of horrors. I have a vivid imagination and afterwards it played tricks on me, the images of what I’d seen replaying like a broken record.

Since growing up a bit, this doesn’t tend to happen so much. I’m not sure when I became ‘desensitised’, but one day it just sort of happened. I watched a horror and thought, well that was scary, but fine. It might actually be something to do with how tired I am. I don’t have time to stay awake thinking about horrible stuff, I am way to sleepy. I have work to get up for – she says as she eyes the time she is writing this blog. Urgh past midnight!!

Don’t get me wrong, I yelp and hide like the best of us when it comes to scary films and plays, but they don’t stick with me quite how they used to. As a result, I’m free to enjoy that adrenaline rush.

James is also a UK bestselling author, known for his dark thrillers, which added to the excitement and anticipation. This has got to be good. Although I will admit, I’ve never read any of his stuff. I bought Dead Simple for my gran, but I don’t she ever read it because she didn’t like the sound of how scary it was!!

Despite being an avid theatre-goer and lover of acting, my only real experience of stage horror is The Woman in Black. That is a must-see. Absolutely jumped out of my skin and couldn’t sleep for weeks (this was during the ‘deeply affected by scary stuff’ time, or Beth’s a wimp stage).

So what is my verdict? In all honesty, The House on Cold Hill was average. I really wanted to enjoy it – and perhaps that is why I left slightly disappointed. Often when you build something up too much, you come away feeling dejected.

I can’t compare it to the original novel James wrote, but maybe I’ll give it a read and get back to you to see if I enjoy that any more. It’s probably worth knowing that the stage adaption was written by someone else. I am not sure how much input James would have given…

So why average – well the play didn’t get off to a good start. I’m not sure whether this was a technical problem, an acting problem, or whether the Orchard acoustics aren’t brilliant, but some of the dialogue was lost. I wondered whether I was being overly critical but I did overhear someone else saying the same thing after the curtain had closed. My gran who came with my father and me, also noted the same difficulty hearing some of the actors.

The staging for the play was simplistic – and that is certainly not a bad thing. Some of the best stuff I have seen in theatre has been a single, plain set. That is the beauty of it, the imagination takes over and captivates you like nothing you can see on television or at the cinema which is often heavily reliant on fancy camera angles and CGI.

I particularly liked the foggy effect that could be seen through the stage left (or right to the audience) window. It created this illusion that the house was isolated and trapped.

I was sat in the upper circle in row D – pretty much centre but very high and far back. However, my view was not obstructed and asides from the sound, I felt like it was a good place to sit and watch.

The only issue we experienced was with my gran, who is nearly 90 (she will be livid I’ve written that, sorry grandma!!) and has bad arthritis in her knees and trouble with her breathing. Unfortunately the theatre has no lift. This is my fault really as I should have checked with the website about accessibility. However, it does come as a surprise, because it is a rather large site and I would have thought there would have been one.

Having since looked at the website in more detail, there is an entire page dedicated to ‘accessibility’ which points out the theatre does not have a lift. Oops.

It also notes here that the upper circle seating and steps are high and without handrails and that customers with mobility difficulties may wish to avoid sitting here. The page identifies some easier, more accessible seating – but I suppose it depends on how popular the show is and what is available. When I came to book The House on the Cold Hill, all but the upper levels had been booked. Another reason why I expected a good show.

The accessibility page has lots of information, so if it’s needed I suggest taking a proper read of it beforehand. But some interesting points which may come in handy…. for those using a wheelchair, there are six licensed spaces inside the theatre. There is also six on-site parking bays for the priority use of patrons who are using the site’s disabled spaces. According to the site, a free car park entry token and permit is also available to such patrons who request the facility at the time of booking, with the tickets for the performance.

I would suggest, however, to book early to ensure you can choose your seat and also to arrive early. The theatre by the time we got there (15 minutes prior to curtain up) was packed. No time for popcorn!!

Worth knowing: there is a toilet downstairs, but if you take the stairs, you will find another – and that may be less busy.

Anyway, back to the show. The cast comprises Joe McFadden as the character of Ollie, the father of the family. McFadden was recently on Strictly – and if you don’t know that, you won’t get one of the earlier jokes. Yes, jokes. As well as being a horror, the play is actually quite witty, the jokes playing on everyday modern family life.

Caro, the wife, is played by Rita Simons, who you may know from Eastenders. However, for our matinee performance she was ‘indisposed’. I’m not sure what happened, but hopefully she is alright. So the part was played by Hannah Lindsey, who does a lot of musical theatre. I felt a bit sorry for Lindsey actually, when it was announced that “Rita Simons is indisposed” there was a huge groan. I know people were keen to see Simons on stage, but poor Lindsey. Anyway, she showed the groaners and played the part of Caro very convincingly. However, it was amusing when a pre recorded voiceover played and it was so obviously Simons.

The other two main characters are Chris and Jade. Chris is the “man Ollie met in the pub and hires to help him with his website design freelancing” and is depicted as a typical “geek”. You can’t forget this point as the characters keep referring to him as one throughout the play. I wondered why they made such a point of this, but it transpires that it’s important to note his tech savy, “geeky” nature. The role was played by Charlie Clements very well. There is a nice storyline associated with Chris that brings in another element of mystery to the play, but sadly, it wasn’t fully explored.

Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson) is another heavily stereotyped character. A moody teen (daughter of Caro and Ollie) who says things like “Oh my God” and talks on FaceTime too much. Despite playing up to typical drawings of the teen, she brought a lot of amusement to the otherwise dark story. The FaceTime element was also important, as technology played a vital role in the story throughout. I thought this was very clever as it made the play more identifiable to current life.

Alexa – you know that voice robot thing everyone has – was another main character in the script and played a pivotal role. I liked how it was used both in quirky, relatable ways and also as a modern means for telling a ghost story. It was actually really creepy. I don’t know why? Maybe because everyone has one and the last thing you want is your smart voice device telling you that people are going to start dying. I will say that one moment with Alexa which I think was meant to be really scary was more comical – and involved the device moving across the table. Maybe that was just me, but I am sure I heard chuckles elsewhere in the theatre.

There were a few other characters too including a sort of physic woman, a vicar and an electrician. In my opinion they all performed well, but were let down by undeveloped characters. I would have much rather had more focus on the main four and perhaps left the others out of it. But there is perhaps the issue with adaptations. What do you take out and what do you keep.

In my opinion, the play started off slowly and a lot of this build up could have been cut to save for a slower ending, which was quite rushed. There were some very good moments within the script, but the scares were too obvious. It is just my personal take, but I found that everytime there was a ghost, the music would suddenly play as if to say ‘don’t miss the ghost bit’. With such a wonderfully atmosphere set, it felt a shame not to have exploited a more subtle approach. I was awaiting secret shadows to flicker momentarily at the windows. This might have been because I recently watched The Haunting of Hill House, which beautifully hides scary easter eggs in every scene.

There were two moments that did really, really give me a fright – and I was delighted. I don’t want to say what they were in case you go and watch the show, as I reckon a lot of people will react in the same way. I just wish that one prop in particular had been used more than once.

The ending to the play was rather hurried as I mentioned, and turned into a bit of a pantomime with the audience. “DON’T DO THAT!!!!” I found myself joining in, begging the characters. Alas, they did not listen. It was nice because it meant that the audience obviously cared for the characters, although I think it took some of the scariness away from it. I don’t think I shouted out once in the Woman in Black, I was too busy sitting as low as I could in my seat, hoping that the ghost woman wouldn’t look at me as she passed through the crowd.

I will say though, that the ending did a very good job of creating a tense atmosphere. The audience knew exactly what was going to happen – while the characters carried on, blissfully (or perhaps not) ignorant of their fate.

Again, I don’t want to give too much away.

So did it end nicely? As if I’m going to spoil it. Sure, it might be a 6/10 for me, but The House on the Cold Hill is certainly worth watching – and I would be keen to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with me or did you think it was the best thing to hit the stage? Comment below and let me know.

I watched the show with my family at the Orchard Theatre based in Dartford, Kent. However, as a touring stag production, the last night was on the weekend. However, it is not too late – the show will also be performing in Brighton and Manchester, among other places. Take a look here for full details of show dates.

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