The Haunting (Athenaeum) – theatre review

If you find period ghost stories appealing and are a fan of Charles Dickens, I may have just the ticket for you. British writer Hugh Janes has combined five of Dickens’ lesser-known ghost stories with elements of the author’s private life, his books and letters to create The Haunting.

The action is set in an ancient mansion in England, around which the winds howl across the surrounding desolate moorland. A young book dealer, David Filde (Gig Clarke), is employed by a former associate of his uncle, Lord Grey (Cameron Daddo), to catalogue a lifetime collection. He finds an incredible array of rare and antiquated hardcovers. But as a series of strange and unexplained events conspire to derail Filde from his work, he discovers that things are not always as they seem.

Many aspects of The Haunting, especially one of the key characters, are based upon Dickens himself. Arguably the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, he was fascinated by spiritualism and often visited mediums. Even after he learned the nature of their gimmickry he continued to visit.

Dickens’ wife Catherine had a younger sister, Mary, who doted on him. When she was 16 she went to live with the family. One night they all returned home from the theatre and Mary went up to bed. Moments later she uttered a terrible choking cry and died the following day. She was then only 17. Dickens took a ring from her finger and wore it for the rest of his life. He wrote a letter to her mother saying that after she passed away he dreamt of her, sometimes as a spirit and on other occasions as a living creature.

Janes’ inspiration for the character of the ghost, Mary (played here by Tehya Nicholas), came from this revelation about Dickens’ sister-in-law.

Discomforting sounds, screams, whispers for help and an ethereal vision are the order of the day in The HauntingThe first half sets the scene and builds the tension, while the second act provides the pay-off and delivers a twist. The story is developed as a mystery, with moments of humour. Deliberately evasive at first, in time a series of reveals gives us plenty to hang onto.

The acting is solid, Daddo well cast as the heir to the manor. His character is regal, but arrogant. That’s in contrast to the respectful and diligent cataloguer of his father’s extensive collection of books – a man who just may know more than he initially lets on. Clarke fills that role admirably. The only other player – whom we catch only furtive glimpses of – is the apparition.

The set (set designer is John Kerr), with its built-in floor to ceiling bookcases, transports us back in time. Somehow paranormal activity seems to have even greater resonance when set in a bygone era … and so it is here. Directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean, The Haunting is playing at The Athenaeum Theatre until 1st July.

Alex First

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