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House of Horrors


By Louise Cummings


If you like your theatre with a large dose of horror, intrigue and mystery, you’re going to love The House On Cold Hill. A spine-tingling new world premiere by number 1 best-selling author Peter James - based on his own real-life experience - it follows the Harcourt family, who move into the house of their dreams, but find they’re not the only residents. Velvet chats to two of its stars, BAFTA-nominated actor and Strictly winner Joe McFadden and award-winning EastEnders actress Rita Simons. . .

What drew you to The House On Cold Hill?

Joe: It’s really well written with really interesting characters. There’s some real tension in there and no-one in the play is what they first seem to be, which makes it so intriguing. It keeps you guessing right up until the last minute.

Rita: I’m a massive fan of mysteries and thrillers. When I was a kid and probably way too young I loved watching really scary films and I’m into anything mysterious or scary, which this certainly is in places. I couldn’t put the script down when I first read it – I was gripped!

How would you sum up your respective characters?

Joe: On the face of it Ollie seems to have everything going for him. He’s just sold his advertising company, he has this great family and it seems like he has this brilliant life, then that slowly gets unravelled throughout the course of the evening. He’s very happy and optimistic that he’s got this house. He’s got the house of his dreams. In his childhood he was asked to draw the house he’d most like to live in and it’s exactly the house he ends up buying. But in the play everything starts to fall apart and you see his life collapsing around him. That makes for an interesting progression as a character.

Rita: Caro is a very family-oriented wife and mother but, as a solicitor, someone who is also very driven. I think she wears the trousers in the marriage but [laughs] I think all women wear the trousers and are quietly in control. She’s a smart cookie but she loves her family.

Are there ways in which you can relate to them?

Joe: I’m quite like Ollie in how he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the occult, although I’m probably more open to it than he is. He very much has decided that all that stuff doesn’t exist.

Rita: I am a wife and a mother and I do love my kids but [laughs] I don’t have a Barbour jacket, although interestingly I do come from a family of solicitors - my mum, my brother, my grandfather. But I’m the odd bod of the family who wanted to become an actress.

The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323658)
The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323658)

What particular challenges does the play present to you as actors?

Joe: I suppose the big challenge is creating tension in the theatre - getting the audience to care and scaring them, getting them wound up in the drama so they care about who we are and what happens to us.

Rita: I’m used to playing extremes. With the last role I did on stage, Legally Blonde, my character was a way-extreme, New York hairdresser and my TV roles have always been really gritty and I’m often in hysterics or someone’s died. So what’s quite difficult for me is that in the beginning when we’re setting up the tension it’s quite even-tempered and that’s a hard place to place yourself as an actress, not having hysterics of any sort. It’s always easier to play one extreme or the other.

What do you feel makes Peter James unique amongst thriller writers?

Joe: He’s so good at creating tension and suspense. I remember reading Dead Simple and being completely horrified by it, with this character being buried alive. I had to stop reading it a few times because it was so upsetting. It’s brilliant that Peter has such a loyal audience. This is the fourth time one of his books has been turned into a play and there’s a real hunger for it.

Rita: Like all of Peter’s books The House On Cold Hill is such a page-turner. That’s why they make such good stage adaptations. You get that sense of tension exactly as if you were turning a page and also because it’s modern-day people can really relate to his stories.

Joe: So many ghost stories are old-fashioned and often set in, like, Victorian times but this one is bang up-to-date. It’s got all the tech and Alexa, Facebook and all that. Alexa in it is really weird and says all this strange stuff, but then I find it weird anyway that people would have something in their house that’s always listening.

The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323665)
The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323665)

Why do you think audiences are drawn to theatrical spine-tinglers?

Joe: It’s the immediacy, isn’t it? You can see a story unrolling in front of you and you can’t press ‘Pause’ or get distracted by stuff. You’re right there, a captive audience, so when something is scary in the theatre, it’s proper scary. I did a ghost story a few years ago, an Alan Ayckbourn play called Haunting Julia, and sensing that tension in an audience makes you feel really powerful as an actor - knowing that you’re scaring the bejesus out of people.

Rita: I think audiences love to be on the edge of their seat and sometimes jumping out of it in a theatre full of other people feeling that same tension. This is my first thriller so it’s all new for me. In fact, it’s my first stage play as opposed to a musical so [laughs] it’s scary for different reasons.

Do you scare easily yourselves?

Joe: I do, yes. I do Shocktoberfest, going to places like Thorpe Park and Alton Towers for all the scary rides. And I love watching horror films. The films in the Insidious series are particularly terrifying.

Rita: I don’t scare at all, probably because I grew up watching horror films and am immune to them now. The only film that’s ever scared me as an adult is The Exorcist, especially because I watched the making-of documentary beforehand and so much weird stuff went on on set.

The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323649)
The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323649)

Joe, have you kept up the dancing since winning Strictly Come Dancing last year?

Joe: No, not really, although there’s a bit of dancing in the play. At one point Alexa plays a song and I start dancing along to it, then one of the characters goes ‘You should be on Strictly mate!’ But you can’t really rock up to a jazz class after you’ve won Strictly because people expect you to be good and I’m not that good without intensive one-on-one training!’.

Do you have a preference between stage and screen?

Joe: I love doing theatre. Getting up on stage and doing plays is the purest form of acting you can do. I did Rainbow Kiss at the Royal Court with Richard Wilson directing. He’s an amazing director and I loved doing that. I did Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory a few years ago and that was brilliant. Theatre stuff is the stuff I look back on most fondly because it’s where you learn the most.

Rita: I really love doing TV and film and I love camera work, but then I went into my first musical with Legally Blonde and thought ‘Oh, I really love being on stage’. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. In my Christmas break from Legally Blonde I did a Krays movie [The Krays: Dead Man Walking] which came out recently and it was so gritty. I’d come from doing Legally Blonde at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre with pink confetti everywhere into a squat in Bethnal Green shooting the most violent thing I’d ever shot in my life. Every job I’ve done so far I’ve loved equally and when it comes to theatre and TV I love them both.

Is there anything you enjoy about stage work in particular?

Joe: It’s that thing of it being about you, not the editing, and the buzz you get from a live audience. You see the reaction instantly rather than having to wait for a year sometimes before you get that feedback.

Rita: I love the live feedback and how you can instantly see the reaction. In TV you never see the reaction, you just hear about it. I’m the queen of nerves. I’m terrible. I build a trench every night walking up and down in my dressing room and it takes me about 20 or 30 performances to calm down, but then I love the adrenaline that goes with all that. You can’t say ‘Cut’ and you’re so exposed but once I’ve calmed down I cannot wait to get on stage. Doing Legally Blonde last year was the first time I’d done musical theatre and I loved it, and I’m loving this too. I love touring and I love acting full stop.

The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323669)
The House on Cold Hill. Image: Helen Maybanks (9323669)

What are you most looking forward to about taking the show on tour?

Joe: What I really like is how each audience is really different and the further north you go they seem to get warmer, especially when you go to Scotland. They’re quite vocal up there. I also like how the play can change in each venue depending on how much an audience gives to us.

Rita: Audiences give you such a different reaction depending on where you are and that means you in turn give them something different every night. I also love how during the day you get to explore different places, places which you’d probably never go to if you weren’t touring. I just love seeing different parts of the country.

Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?

Rita: [Laughs] Apart from building a trench with nerves…?

Joe: I like to sleep. I love to get in a nap before or between shows. Even on Strictly they were like ‘Have you just had a nap?’ I would literally nap ten minutes before going on live television.

Rita: We are so opposite! I’m climbing the walls while you go to sleep! My only ritual is: Make-up, music on, chilled [laughs] and then build a trench.

Joe: And after a show it’s a little glass of wine and seeing some friends if they’re in but don’t go too wild as you have to do it all again the next day.

What’s the one thing you have to have in your dressing room?

Joe: My Thai day bed so I can get my nap in!

Rita: When I did Legally Blonde it was a humidifier and steamer but this time because I don’t have to sing I just need my portable speaker to play my music on.

The House On Cold Hill is at Cambridge Arts Theatre, May 20-25. Find out more at cambridgeartstheatre.com or call (01223) 503333