REVIEW: The Haunting – New Vic – Newcastle-under-Lyme


Staging Charles Dickens’ “The Haunting” in-the-round at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre is a bold and ambitious endeavour, typical of the New Vic’s commitment to theatrical excellence. Directed by Eleanor Taylor, this production attempts to blend the eerie atmosphere of Victorian ghost stories with modern theatrical techniques. While it succeeds in some areas, it falls short in others, leaving the overall experience somewhat uneven.

One of the most striking features of this production is the exceptional use of illusions and lighting. Staging illusions in-the-round is a significant challenge, as it requires the effects to be visible and convincing from all angles. Dr. Will Houstoun, the Illusionist Consultant, has managed to create moments of genuine wonder and fright. The illusions are seamlessly integrated into the narrative, adding layers of mystery and surprise. Daniella Beattie’s lighting design complements these illusions perfectly, using shadows and strategic lighting to enhance the eerie atmosphere. Being the resident lighting director, I have had the privilege of seeing lots of Beattie’s lighting work – it is flawless every single time. I am of the firm belief that Beattie is one of the best lighting designers this country has to offer. The combination of these elements results in several spine-tingling moments that effectively immerse the audience in the supernatural world of the play.

Michael Holt, known for his iconic work on “The Woman In Black,” has designed a set that is both period-appropriate and visually engaging. The manor house setting is rich in detail, with period-specific furniture and decorations that ground the story in its Victorian context. However, this static set, while visually appealing, does contribute to a sense of stagnation at times. Without changes in location or scenery, the play can feel confined, which affects the pacing and overall dynamism of the piece.

Hugh Janes’ script, based on several of Dickens’ ghost stories, attempts to weave these narratives into a cohesive whole. However, the result is somewhat inconsistent. The story centres on David Filde (Richard Leeming), a young man who visits an ancient manor to organize the estate of the late owner, Lord Gray (David Ahmad). There, he encounters the ghost of Mary (Jessica Hole), a tragic young woman whose presence adds to the mystery.

While the premise is intriguing, the execution is flawed. The pacing of the play is uneven, with several scenes feeling static and slow. The tension, crucial for a ghost story, is not consistently maintained, resulting in periods where the narrative drags. The script relies heavily on familiar gothic tropes: the mysterious house, the wealthy family with a dark past, the curious investigator, and the tragic young woman. These elements, while classic, are not presented with any new twists or innovations. In an era when ghost stories are being redefined by productions like “2:22 A Ghost Story” and “Ghost Stories,” this play feels outdated and lacking in originality.

The cast delivers competent performances, but they are limited by the script’s one-dimensional characterisations. David Ahmad’s portrayal of Lord Gray is suitably aloof and enigmatic, while Jessica Hole’s Mary embodies the archetypal tragic heroine with grace. Richard Leeming’s David Filde is earnest and curious, driving the investigation forward. However, the characters are written to be quite static, with little development or depth. This lack of dynamic character interaction diminishes the emotional impact of the story and makes it harder for the audience to invest in their fates.

The dialogue attempts to emulate Dickens’ style, with ornate vocabulary and elaborate sentence structures. While this can add to the period authenticity, it often feels forced and unnatural. The language, rather than flowing seamlessly, sometimes becomes a barrier to engagement. This stylistic choice, while ambitious, does not always succeed in enhancing the narrative and can detract from the immediacy and emotional resonance of the dialogue. This feels like someone trying to match Dickensian written language to dialogue which feels totally incongruent and jarring.

The production makes effective use of jump scares to startle the audience. These moments, executed with precise timing, provide brief spikes of adrenaline and keep the audience on edge. However, while jump scares can be thrilling, they do not compensate for the overall lack of sustained tension and atmospheric dread that a truly great ghost story requires. The reliance on these sudden shocks highlights the production’s struggle to build a consistent and pervasive sense of fear.

In conclusion, “The Haunting” at the New Vic Theatre offers a visually stunning and technically impressive experience, particularly with its illusions and lighting. Michael Holt’s set design beautifully captures the Victorian setting, and the cast delivers professional performances within the constraints of their roles. However, the inconsistent script, static pacing, and lack of originality in the narrative prevent the production from reaching its full potential. For those seeking a nostalgic gothic experience with some effective scares, it delivers, but for audiences looking for a fresh and innovative take on the ghost story genre, it may fall short. In any eventuality, a night at the New Vic witnessing the strength of the creative team the New Vic has to offer is never a wasted night out.

The Haunting plays at the New Vic until 15th June 2024.

Photography throughout from Andrew Billington.






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