Blending five of Charles Dickens’ harrowing stories into one stage narrative, Hugh Janes’ The Haunting takes inspiration from various texts across Dickens works including short stories, letters and books, as well as key moments directly from his private life that form a theatrical spiritual homage to the great writer himself.
And who better to bring this story to life than the Worthing-based Conn Artists Theatre Company? Known for their previous works on Dickens such as A Perfect Likeness, The Haunting sees familiar faces Ross Muir and David Stephens reunited on stage for this chilling piece, alongside company director Nick Young, previously of the RSC.
In terms of ghost stories, it doesn’t get more traditional than this. Set in a bygone mansion surrounded by a desolate moorland, we’re introduced to young book dealer David Filde. Employed by Lord Gray to catalogue his father’s extensive and mysterious library of books, the two immediately clash in character as Filde delves in the supernatural while the stern Lord Gray is led by what he deems to be entirely logical explanations.
As the narrative unfolds it quickly becomes apparent that all is not what it seems, not only with the eerie environment as this particular room in the house where the play is set is drenched with paranormal activity, but it also turns out that this slight chance meeting between our two protagonists is far from a coincidence, as the pair begin to reveal deeper secrets about themselves that lead up to a discovery of a harrowing truth in the play’s final act.
The Haunting isn’t a production that is full of jump scares and in-your-face special effects by any means, it’s a character driven piece that focuses on the two lead counterparts, with story telling being led by rich text and dialogue. As the play progresses, the underlying tension grows and builds a gradual suspense with the audience that, by the interval, leads the crowd desperate for more. It fuses light elements of horror with a detective style mystery that is intriguing from start to finish, its pacing and length just right to leave attendees wanting to see more.
It’s important to note that this production marks the ten year anniversary of the Conn Artists Theatre Company, who have developed themselves from producing intimate one-man studio pieces solely in Worthing, to now fully casted productions that tour UK wide, boasting excellent technical production levels provided by Matt Pike with well decorated sets and astute costumes.
Matt’s work on lighting in particular in this production stands out as the shadows created by dimly lit areas alongside pitch black spaces create a strong sense of unease.
Laura Kimber’s set design sees a giant bookcase overflowing with works that have a mind of their own, with uneasy feelings evoked by a towering tree in the backdrop seen through blurred windows to create a touch of discomfort and mystery.
For lovers of traditional theatre, ghost stories, and fans of the works of Dickens, The Haunting is a must see show that embarks on a country-wide tour from 20 September to 14-15 November, revisiting Sussex at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne on its final tour date. For more information, visit the Conn Artists Theatre Company website.
Reviewer: Stephen Sheldrake