“Real life scares me more than anything” remarks author Peter James. Thus appropriate that The House on the Cold Hill, adapted for theatre from James’ bestselling novel, was inspired by real events in his life. “They’ve been townies all their lives”, he describes, and “they decide to follow the dream so they buy this big old wreck in the country, moving to it with the idea that it’s going to be their forever home and they’re going to spend the next ten years restoring it. Then they find out that they may not be the only people living in it.”
It would be easy to hear this and dismiss the piece as a classic ghost story, the all-too-familiar tale of an old, haunted house in the country. But this story is hardly conventional. As Holby City star Joe McFadden (Ollie Harcourt) later pointed out, James’s story is an innovative one. “So many ghost stories are old-fashioned and often set in, like, Victorian times but this one is bang up-to-date. It’s got all the tech”. From Facebook to Alexa, this is a play which feels disturbingly close to reality.
But modern technology isn’t all that sets this production apart. Peter James has an impressive career as a writer of best-selling thrillers; between Dead Simple, You are Dead, Dead If You Don’t, Love You Dead, Want You Dead, and Not Dead Enough, there’s certainly a distinct theme to his writing, and its anything but dull. If you’re looking for drawn-out conversations across dreary gothic dining tables, this isn’t your play. When asked what attracts him to the thriller genre, he argues “If you go back to the roots of storytelling, Shakespeare’s plays were page-turners with people eager to know what happened next. I think as a storyteller it’s important to not bore your readers.” As a self-professed fan of the “page turner”, monotony is the last thing you can expect in James’ writing, just as in a theatre adaptation of his work.
In fact, The House on the Cold Hill gains rather than loses in the adapting process. When asked about the transition from book to play, he notes: “Storytelling is an oral tradition. Before books, there were travelling storytellers… So in a way theatre goes right back to the roots of storytelling, with that instant connection with the audience.” Commenting on the collaborative process, he has nothing but praise for the team he worked with: “What I love about working with [producer] Joshua Andrews and [writer] Shaun McKenna is how we all respect each other’s views and opinions. I’m very hands-on but I know my limitations. I’m an author and I write novels. It’s a very different process making something work on stage, and for me Shaun is a magician”.
Those fans of the book expecting an exact copy are likely to be surprised: “The plays are both faithful to the spirit of the books and yet different enough that if you’ve read the book in question you’ll get a new experience out of the play. We’ve changed the endings, including this one, so you see them nodding as if they know what’s going to happen, then you get the gasps of surprise”. It’s telling that James describes them as “plays” rather than a “play” — for him, theatre is all about “new experiences”: “Once a book is finished it stays the same, but with a play every single production, and indeed every single performance, is different, especially if something goes wrong or audiences react differently.” If nothing else, you’re guaranteed a unique experience, no matter how familiar you are with the story.
So why is it that audiences are drawn to scary stories in the first place? When posing this question, I got varying answers. Peter James argues “There’s a kind of comfort in it because you’ve got the shared thrill and you’re surrounded by hundreds of others, so everybody jumps at the same time, then everyone laughs… I think the world is a scary place and part of the reason people love reading a good thriller or going to a thriller play is because they can be scared but in a controlled environment.”
“There’s that thing of solving a puzzle”, Hollyoaks star Persephone Swales-Dawson (Jade) notes. “There’s an inherent danger that keeps them on the edge of their seats. When something like that is going on in front of you, you might want to look away but you’re so riveted you won’t be able to”. “It’s because it’s live”, concurs co-star Charlie Clements (Chris). “It makes people feel alive in a way – that prospect of not knowing what might happen or imagining what could happen. And in the theatre it’s a domino effect because if one person jumps that feeds round the auditorium and other people jump”. As Joe McFadden points out, “You can’t press ‘Pause’ or get distracted by stuff. You’re right there, a captive audience, so when something is scary in the theatre it’s proper scary”
The House on the Cold Hill promises to be a thrilling, if terrifying, production. At the Cambridge Arts theatre from 20th May, everybody can find a reason to watch it, whether it’s to feel alive, to solve a puzzle, or just for a group scare!