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Criterion Theatre, Coventry, review: The Haunting

The Haunting, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, to Friday November 4

Review by Chris Arnot

An unsettling wind begins to howl even before the curtains open to reveal a decidedly unsettling setting. At first there’s near darkness. Then the slim young man dozing in a large armchair rouses himself and lights a lamp.

It soon becomes evident that we’re in an imposing, book-lined room with a skeletal tree just beyond the far window. This is wild moorland country. Yes, there’s shelter from the wind in here but little in the way of hospitality.

The owner Lord Gray is an arrogant aristocrat. The young man has come all the way from London to evaluate those books. But what should be a labour of love for a lover of leather-bound tomes soon becomes a venture into terror.

“I regard literature as the buttress of pedantry”, proclaims his inhospitable host who wants money for books that he has evidently inherited but never read. And that’s just one of a quite a few resonant lines from a play by Hugh Janes based on the works of Charles Dickens.

Janes has somehow blended five of Dickens’ short stories, reflecting the great man’s fascination with the supernatural world. And under the shrewd direction of veteran thespian Keith Railton, the Criterion has done author and playwright proud.

The set, designed by Bob Morley and assembled by too many set builders to mention, is ideal for the chilling events that unfold. So are the sound-effects and lighting.

As for the two main characters, Ted McGowan perfectly captures the earnestness and growing fears of the young London book-lover and Peter Gillam plays Lord Gray with aplomb.

Books fly from shelves, voices wail, and even his lordship is cowed by the events that unfold. Almost a full house was there for the early-evening showing on the eve of halloween. Most were on the edge of their seats – or on the edge of my seat in the case of my wife who kept digging her fingers into my forearm at regular intervals.

A haunting production for sure.

Barbara Goulden adds: Perfect for halloween, this modern blend of Dickens' ghost stories really has the audience on the edge of their seats.

Veteran director Keith Railton has called on a hugely talented team to create a truly splendid baronial manor set, compose dramatic music, and produce enough stunning special effects to chill the blood.

Stars of this Victorian melodrama are Peter Gillam who plays languid aristocrat Lord Gray with a brilliant sense of timing as he sniffily fails to make welcome eager young book valuer David, played by Ted McGowan.

Ted has us all on his side right from the start as we join in his mounting terror.

Finally there's the ghastly appearances by the apparition Louisa Ruscoe wailing for help from beyond the grave...or is it from beyond the wood panelled bookshelves?

There's a confusing denouement, perhaps, but this is a play not to be missed if you want to embrace the onset of dark winter nights and the clocks turning back.

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