Playwright Hugh Janes learnt from a master how to scare an audience half to death with his spine-tingling thriller The Haunting.
Inspired by five short ghost stories of Charles Dickens, Janes wrote this chilling supernatural adaptation a few years ago and it was snapped up by theatre producer Bill Kenwright for a major UK stage tour.
Now a 50-seat South London fringe venue showed that you don’t have to employ top stars or expensive special effects to have audiences on the edge of their seats and biting their nails to the quick.
My heart was pounding as the tension and fear was racked up in this classic haunted house mystery at the Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley.
The venue’s artistic director, Kate Bannister takes the reins for the show and has done a masterly job in providing a night of suspense.
I’ve never been so startled by a play. I’m embarrassed to say that I burst out laughing during the first time I watched Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, a ghost story with international acclaim. It just didn’t do it for me.
But The Haunting grabs you from the outset and draws you in to a tale of horrifying dimensions. Some of the sound effects were a little over-used but, on the whole, this is as scared as you’ll ever be by a stage play.
It’s always difficult to create the same fright level with a stage play. Screen visual effects are so sophisticated that they can make us all believe in ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings.
In a theatre you have largely lost that capacity to shock – but no-one told Bannister or sound designer Philip Matejtschuk.
We’re in a cobweb-covered library of an old manor house, situated in the eerie isolation of a lonely, swampy moor. The old lord has died and his son, wanting to realise his assets and pay off debts, has called in an antiquarian bookseller to value the tomes now gathering dust.
But there’s more to young David Filde than first meets the eye. From the outset he appears an eager young pup, sent out by the boss on his first serious business deal. He greets the current Lord Gray, a cynical and dour Scot, with bright eyed anticipation.
But his enthusiasm soon turns to terror when he starts hearing a young woman’s voice in the library and strange sounds about the house. Books fly off shelves and worse is to come.
The sceptical Gray refuses to accept that the room may be haunted. “Everything inexplicable has an explanation behind it,” he resolutely declares. But the library’s walls hide a terrible and shocking secret that is eventually revealed as this thrilling story progresses.
Robert Durbin, as Filde, and Jamie Laird as the lord, both give intense and powerful turns that draw the audience into their awful ordeal. We’re with them every step of the way as they endure a night that will change them forever.
Durbin’s performance is absorbing as we see him descend from wide-eyed expectation and innocence into the darkest recesses of his mind.
Unlike most ghost stories we aren’t troubled by a young maiden being driven insane by ghostly goings-on. Here the brave men journeying beyond the grave to confront their greatest fear head-on.
Ghost stories were a particular favourite of the Victorians. They liked their Christmas entertainment dark and spectral, and Dickens was a huge fan. It’s not surprising that he took every opportunity to include a tale or two in his books.
The Haunting is a welcome return to that tradition and a must if you’re a fan of the genre. One word of warning – don’t see it on your own!
The Haunting runs at the Brockley Jack until January 3.
A chilling festive masterpiece. The Haunting at Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre sees spirits reach out from beyond the grave for a spine-tingling Christmas ghost story.