The Haunting of Hill House – University of Adelaide Theatre Guild Student Society

The Haunting of Hill House – University of Adelaide Theatre Guild Student Society

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 gothic horror novel by Shirley Jackson.  It was first adapted for stage in 1964 by F. Andrew Leslie, which is the version being staged tonight by the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild Student Society (TGSS). Another stage adaptation was prepared by Anthony Neilson in 2015, but it has been much less successful.  The original novel is so well regarded – Steven King loves it – that it has also been adapted for the big screen, and a TV series can also be found on Netflix, although it is only loosely based on the novel.


Depending on the actual script, horror is difficult to portray effectively on the stage, especially for today’s audience that has come to expect all manner of special effects and hi-tech wizardry, and so TGSS face an uphill battle to scare the pants off the audience before they even take to the stage.  F. Andrew Leslie’s script doesn’t always make life easy, but TGSS largely succeed in making a good fist of this production.  They have three main weapons in their theatrical arsenal: the careful use of silence, a cast who patiently and effectively use that silence and who don’t feel the need to be ‘doing’ something at every available moment, and lighting that strives to evoke a foreboding environment.


Without giving anything away, the action revolves around a group of people who have been brought to an abandoned mansion with a tragic history and ghostly reputation to assist an academic with his research about the paranormal. Quite soon the guests experience various disturbances and one of them is soon in mortal danger. 


Lilian Johns plays housekeeper Mrs. Dudley, and from the outset as she abruptly and unpleasantly ‘greets’ the guests it is clear that something unpleasant will happen at the house – it’s all a matter of time. Johns sustains her unpleasant characterisation.


The first guest to arrive is Eleanor Vance played by Sophie Livingston-Pearce, who imbues the role with sweetness and vulnerability.  She gradually succumbs to whatever paranormal influences are at work in the house and, as an audience, we debate whether this is because there is a fundamental flaw in her character – a predisposition to succumb to ‘otherworldly influences’ – or whether indeed there is some irrepressible force at work in the house.  It’s a fine balancing act by Livingston-Pearce whose diction is impressive, as is her poise and confidence on stage.


Then arrives Theodora played by Nina Wilcock.  Theodora and Eleanor quickly hit it off and Eleanor is attracted to Theodora’s vivaciousness and self-assurance.  Wilcock is entirely believable as someone to whom anyone can gravitate.


Leo Chang plays Dr John Montague, the academic.  Chang gives Montague a certain stillness and assuredness that allows him to believably calm others when they panic and react to the happenings in the house.  Montague has many funny one-liners that Chang delivers with requisite dryness. In some respects, the inherent humour in F. Andrew Leslie’s script is a weakness, as it sometimes detracts from the grimness of the situation the guests are facing that is usually implied rather than seen. That is, we have overt humor often dominating unseen danger: the laughs win, and any feeling of foreboding that the audience may have is diluted.  This is a failing in the script, not with Chang.


The house is owned by Luke Sanderson played by Jace Grummett. He gives the role a light touch for the most part, with some flamboyant gestures at times that are puzzling.  It’s as if we are being  groomed to expect something surprising at some point from the character, but this doesn’t happen.


Late in act one, the guests are joined by Mrs Montague the wife of Dr Montague.  Played enthusiastically by Madelaine Jones, she sweeps onto the stage in flamboyant style with her ‘friend’ Arthur Parker in tow.  Dr and Mrs Montague clearly have an atypical relationship , and one wonders whether Parker is a friend with benefits?! As Parker, William Langrehr plays the part rather enigmatically, almost in a Coward style.


Director Lily Watkins has worked hard to hard to bring an imperfect adaptation of a classic novel to the stage.  There is much that is good about this production, but the text is labored at times which can only be helped so much by energetic actors and solid production elements.  Tahneisha Mottishaw’s stark set is dressed well by Mary McAuliffe, and allows Watkins to move her cast around with fluency and purpose.  Phoenix Scriver’s lighting design adds to the sense of gloom and doom, as does Tommy Raet’s sound design.  The musical underscoring was effective, and there was scope to use much more of it.


The Haunting of Hill House is another creditable production by TGSS.

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This production was reviewed by:

Kym Clayton
Kym Clayton
Kym is passionate about the arts and has been involved in community theatre for more than 40 years. He has directed numerous productions across a range of companies and occasionally ‘treads the boards’. He is a regular reviewer for The Barefoot Review, and is a member of The Adelaide Critics Circle. He is a graduate of the Arts Management program at the University of South Australia and enjoys working with a range of not-for-profit arts organizations including Galleon Theatre Group and Recitals Australia.

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