The Haunting of Hill House (Liverpool Playhouse)
Anthony Neilson's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel is a genuinely chilling watch
Famously hard to get right, horror theatre might be about to enter a new era. Video design is changing theatre and, for the first time, actors and animations can convincingly occupy the same world. It makes all manner of unearthly things possible and, were The Haunting of Hill House not so brilliantly acted, 59 Productions' projections would steal the show. Immaterial and spectral, possibly even subliminal, projections change the speed and scope of theatrical spooks. Technology hasn't been this terrifying since John Henry Pepper lined his mirrors up just right.
Adapted from Shirley Jackson's novel of the same name – one of the 20th century's two great ghost stories, according to Stephen King – The Haunting of Hill House is a genuinely chilling watch. Brought together by Dr. John Montague (Martin Turner), three young Americans – jitterbug Eleanor, louche Theodora and cynical hack Luke – try to stick out a stint in a gothic mansion with a reputation for ghostly goings on. Tenants rarely make it out alive, and the 80-year-old house has become the thing of local legend.
Remote and deserted, the building itself seems to be alive. "This house is not sane," shivers Eleanor as she approaches it. Miriam Buether's design makes it so. On a stage made of shadow, the floorplan seems to mutate. Two twin revolves create a moving maze of doors and corridors. It seems perfectly possible that the staircase might switch places. The walls, too, morph and distort: the colour drains out of them, wallpaper reorders itself. Anything could happen at any moment. You watch, braced.
Only, as Luke says, "houses aren't haunted, people are." The genius of Jackson's story is that it never entirely explains what it's up to: whether or not Hill House is a manifestation of Eleanor's mental state. She's anxious from the off, but there's more than that: a lifetime spent looking after her chronically ill mother, a conflicted sexual psyche of closeted lesbianism and a historic association with poltergeists that suggests some childhood trauma or other. Very 1959.
Though ultimately a bit of a cop out – the second half could use one leap-out-of-your-skin scare – that vagueness is precisely what allows its terror to brew. As you scrabble for explanations, inexplicable things team up and entangle. Voices. Telepathic connections. Writings on the wall. Shadowy animals and spectral children. Nick Powell's sound design comes from every direction, even making your own chair vibrate, and Jack Knowles's lighting is a masterclass in misdirection, eerie enough all on its own.
Crucially, though, there's just the right edge of humour. It scares because it never take itself too seriously. Anthony Neilson's script keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek ("That Freud fellow's all the rage these days") and Melly Still's production nails the cartoon preppiness of Scooby Do. That's born out beautifully in performance. Emily Bevan is all aquiver as Eleanor, yet there's something jagged about her too, while Chipo Chung is perfectly, almost comically, self-assured as Theodora. There's a hysterical cameo from Angela Clerkin too, as a Madam Arcati-like medium – one eyebrow permanently acock like a ghost detector, fingers twitching like antennae. Don't be surprised to see Hill House in the West End this time next year.
The Haunting of Hill House runs at Liverpool Playhouse until 16th January