"One man in his time plays many parts", muses Jacques in As You Like It. You could say the same about Wilkie Collins, novelist friend of Charles Dickens and occasional playwright, whose own private life was as convoluted as any of his plots. Nowadays he is best known as the author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone and, to a much lesser degree, No Name.

The Haunted Hotel was published ten years after The Moonstone, in 1878, but has never really found a public. The current stage version of The Haunted Hotel was created by Philip Dart and director Val May in 1993.

The action takes place during the last year of Queen Victoria's reign in a London theatre, whose actor-manager - think George Alexander or Frank Benson rather than Henry Irving - needs to follow a faltering production with a sure fire success. He decides to make a play out of a family story and invites a popular leading man to a reading.

Any building which is normally peopled takes on a spooky quality when empty and dimly lit. Alexander McPherson's set has a fake proscenium arch and crimson tabs to remind us that we are eavesdroppers at a play within a play and spectators for several layers of stage illusion.

No, I'm not going to tell you the plot. You must find that out for yourself. Yes, it has got lots of twists. And yes, it does live up to its title.

Brian Blessed was scheduled to play theatre owner Sir Francis Westwick, but was taken ill on the opening night. Understudy Andrew Ramsay took over for the Colchester run to good, if non-barnstorming, effect.

There are two very strong women's roles. One is that of actress Maria Cavenna (shades of Duse and Bernhardt) who then plays the Countess. Elizabeth Counsell controlled the histrionics and melodramatic elements superbly to create a three-dimensional tragic victim.

Heroines in Collins tend to be feisty ladies and ingénue Evelyn Collier, still star-struck, is briskly and effectively transformed into un-lamb like Agnes by Louise Breckon-Richards. Lynette McMorrough is Lady Westwick and offers a kaleidoscope of accents, headgear and funny walks as all the working women without whom Victorian society could not function.

The initially disdainful Gerald Ivor who is landed with the part of the rather passive Henry is played by Dominic Kemp. Richard Hodder as character actor Albert Denny plays all the men on the fringes of the central, dramatised drama.

Stage management have a busy evening with constant set and prop shifting, not to mention the manipulation of all the special effects devised by Matt Drury (lighting) and Clement Rawling (sound).

Another quotation from Shakespeare makes an appropriate summary: "Rest, rest perturb'd spirit".

- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester)