Misery by name and miserable by nature. Stephen King's taut little thriller is a pretty dark affair. King's original novel was a great success and an Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates on screen brought both the film and her performance much acclaim. Simon Moore's elegant stage adaptation, written for a cast of two, was first produced in the West End some years back with Sharon Gless and Bill Patterson playing cat and mouse with each other. This latest tour features two British television stalwarts - Leslie Grantham ('dirty Den' from Eastenders) and Sandra Maitland, formerly of Brookside.
A full-length two-hander is notoriously difficult to sustain at the best of times, and inevitably relies on the strength of the performances and the skill of the actors in creating a chemistry between them. It is a shame to report, therefore, that in this production, whilst Maitland is outstanding, Grantham lets the side down.
The Misery of the title is the heroine in a series of trashy but immensely popular historical romances created by award winning writer, Paul Sheldon (Grantham). On his way back from a rural hideaway in Colorado where he has just completed his latest opus, he crashes and is rescued by every celebrity's worst nightmare - the obsessive and barking mad fan. The reclusive Annie Wilkes (Maitland) is a nurse, though not quite the kind of carer that even our NHS, with its well publicised shortages, would be happy to employ. While nursing (if that is the word) the disabled writer, she's also keeping him prisoner to fill the void in her dysfunctional life.
Actually, dysfunctional in Annie's case is a misnomer since, during the course of the play, her obsessive madness progresses from barking to howling. Sheldon soon learns not to anger Annie for, as she says with a degree of self-knowledge, "if I stay, I'll do something unwise." She insists that the author pen a new Misery novel to her specifications, and it becomes clear that, like Sheherazade, he will only remain alive whilst he is writing.
Although there are Hitchcockian undertones in the situation and the theme is not dissimilar to, say Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, Misery is very much a character-driven piece. Maitland's insanity is utterly convincing with its occasional flashes of black humour. Grantham, however, is wooden and his American accent veers crazily from Whitechapel to Mississippi via Sid James in Carry On, Cowboy. At times, his morphine-ridden anguish provokes audience giggles.
This is a shame because Nigel West's production, as a whole, is perfectly respectable, with an interestingly shabby setting care of Douglas Heap and a raft of creepy music and sound effects.
Fortunately, the evening is saved by the quality of the writing and Maitland's performance. Despite all, this is still edge-of-the-seat stuff.