Derby Theatre, Monday 26th November, 2012
Writer Hugh Janes has adapted ghost stories by Charles Dickens, resulting in a play that has a good deal in common with long-running West End hit, The Woman in Black. A young man is despatched to an isolated mansion for bureaucratic reasons and is disturbed by supernatural phenomena… Unlike its predecessor, The Haunting is more straightforward in its structure and approach and, thanks to Simon Scullion’s impressive, Victorian gothic set, has a more naturalistic feel. The atmosphere is perfect with mists and cobwebs and decay. Doors open and slam of their own accord. Books fly from shelves. There are plenty of ‘jump’ moments to rouse the audience and crank up the tension.
David Robb is splendid as the urbane, sardonic Lord Gray, a sceptic who is trying to sell off his late father’s estate, including his library of valuable books. There is a fey humour to his dismissals of the paranormal and he looks suitably dashing in a range of frockcoats and dressing gowns.
I didn’t take to his young counterpart in the same way. As the credulous book dealer, James Roache is togged up like Daniel Radcliffe in the film of The Woman in Black, but his delivery of most of his dialogue is off-putting; he attacks his lines like a barrister making courtroom revelations.
Where the play is let down is in some of the dialogue. At times they speak in descriptions, giving voice to passages from the Dickens original (“the house, pinched on all sides by the moor”) or spout the most florid lines (“I consider literature the buttress of pedantry”) that it is a good job the set and props are there to interrupt them before it all becomes too wordy and dense.
Director Hugh Wooldridge handles the atmosphere splendidly. All the old tricks in the book of old tricks are here. Drawn-out silences suddenly shattered by loud noises. Mists and shadows and things moving about. Disembodied voices and ghostly apparitions… And it all works very well. The mystery of the ghost story is gradually unravelled, and is not without surprises.
On the whole, this is an exercise in demonstrating the pleasure we take in being wound up and scared. It’s an intriguing little story, well-executed and presented. Special mention must go to Jonathan Suffolk’s sound design, which plays such an important role in putting us on edge. Well worth the trip, the production gives you that unique frisson of hundreds of people all being startled at once, and then gasping and laughing at what silly creatures we all are. You don’t get the same experience at the cinema.