It seems like ages since I have been to Leeds Grand Theatre, possibly because it is, so it was great to get back there to see The House on Cold Hill, a play by Peter James. On the website of the Leeds Grand Theatre it is described as ‘a modern-day supernatural thriller’ which sums it up nicely.
Over the years I have been to some productions of ‘thrillers’ which have been anything but. This, however, was a cut above the rest.
The action takes place in an old house near Brighton which may or may not be haunted. There is nothing new about a family moving into an old Manor House only to discover that the estate agent failed to mention the paranormal activity of their new gaff, but here the action is brought up to date by the use of modern technology.
On moving-in day, whilst Ollie, the father played by Joe McFadden, is trying to get his wifi up and running with the help of local geek and ghost expert Chris, and mum, Caro, Eastenders’ Rita Simons, organises the domestics, daughter Jade, best known for her role in Hollyoaks, is on a FaceTime call to her friend who sees the mysterious figure of ‘The Grey Lady’ standing behind her.
Strange things begin to happen, such as doors closing and locking themselves and an ironing board collapsing for no apparent reason, all of which makes the family wonder what they have let themselves in for. The best bit of tech suspense is provided by the smart speaker which Caro has bought as a fortieth birthday present for Ollie. The surprise fails, though, as he comes into the room as geeky Chris is setting it up before the big day. The smart speaker is connected to the Amazon app Alexa and is used in the normal way for playing music and answering questions until it develops a mind of its own and goes off on sporadic tangents. I thought that this was a novel touch and added a new dimension to an otherwise clichéd situation. Phil, the builder who is doing renovation work for them, is drawn into the mystery as are the vicar, Fortinbras, and local psychic, Annie, who also doubles as the family’s new cleaner.
Back to the Grand’s website where patrons are requested not to give away ‘any of the production’s shocks and surprises so that future audience members can enjoy them.’ No spoilers from me then. What I will say is that this is definitely a play of two halves. The first is a scene-setting and foundation-laying exercise for the post-interval section. That is probably the case in all thrillers, but this time the mood seemed to change as well from the flippant to the more sombre. I believe that it’s also safe also to say that the denouement is given away during the course of the play but, as there are two possible endings suggested, it is a case of working out which will be the real one. As I said, no spoiler from me.
When it comes to credits, all of the actors were very good, especially the above-mentioned soap stars and Ms Simons’ erstwhile colleague from Albert Square, Charlie Clements, who was superb as Chris in walking the tightrope between brilliant mind and total nutter. Leon Stewart as Phil the builder excelled and Tricia Deighton’s Annie added a touch of comedic eccentricity without overstepping the mark and crossing into farce. Pádraig Lynch as Fortinbras and Simon Balcon, O’Hare, made up the cast and worked well. The star of the performance, however, had to be Alexa, the smart speaker.
As you would expect with supernatural suspense, a lot depends on the direction, which was handled here very well by Ian Talbot, although the acting in the first half was directed a little too much at the audience rather than the other participants, which gave it a false feel. The special effects were done supremely well by designer Michael Holt who managed to use just one set for all of the action, along with designer of lighting, Jason Taylor, sound, Martin Hodgson and video and projection which was skilfully handled by Nina Dunn.
The House on Cold Hill has restored my faith in touring productions of thrillers, so thank you very much to all involved. Now all there is to say is
‘Alexa, please bring this review to an end.’
The House on Cold Hill runs until Saturday, 4th May with the performance on Thursday, 2nd May being followed by a Q&A with writer Peter James at no extra cost.
Photographs provided by Leeds Grand Theatre.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.