Sean McKenna’s adaptation of Peter James’s novel is doing the rounds. It’s a Reader’s Digest version of the book, rattling through the plot at a rate of knots. There is no time for nuance and the dialogue is limited to only that which moves things forwards. But then you don’t come to these things for subtlety. What we do get is a cracking, fast-moving thriller that keeps us guessing and offers up a few surprises.
With Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) and his most recent on-screen Mrs (Laurie Brett) leading the cast as Tom and Kellie Brice, the play looks and sounds like a cranked-up episode of EastEnders, and indeed the acting style is not far removed from the world of soap. Woodyatt/Beale is exactly as you would expect, and he does a good job of alternating between sarcasm and desperation. Brett has more of a stretch, as the compulsive cleaner, reformed alcoholic Kellie. Completing the household is Luke Ward-Wilkinson as their 17 year old son, Max, who manages to come across as younger and younger as the action hots up.
The plot kicks off with Ian Beale bringing home a USB stick he found on a train. He recruits Max to help him access the content, with a view to returning it to the owner. They stumble across very dark material indeed, namely a live feed of a young woman being killed. Is it a fake? Is it special effects? Meanwhile, poor Ian is struggling to find clients for his business, and Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) happens along and it looks like the Beale-Brices are out of the woods. But then Max receives a warning from the online killers…
If you switch your brain off and go along for the ride, this is a hugely enjoyable ride. Director Jonathan O’Boyle serves up suspense by the bucketful, and there’s a lot of fun to be had by trying to second-guess the plot (which I succeed in doing, if I may brag for a second!)
Recurring character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (played this time by Harry Long) indulges in a lot of banter with his subordinates, Leon Stewart and Gemma Stroyan, adding humour to the mix as well as police-procedural jargon for authenticity. Mylo McDonald brings an air of menace as online killer Mick, who is Oirish so of course he’s called Mick.
Michael Holt’s set effectively separates the action from the on-screen and the off, while Max Pappenheim’s sound design underscores the action, although some of the ‘stings’ are a bit on the nose, veering us into the realms of melodrama.
This fast-paced roller-coaster doesn’t allow time to mull over the convenience of some of the plot points, but this isn’t True Crime, it’s crime as entertainment and as such, it fills its remit admirably. Super fun!
When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past. Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…
And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller. Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect. But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use. FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.
Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability. Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction. Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication. She also has some great reactive moments.
There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras. Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.
Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.
Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.
Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…