by Stephen King
October 13th - 20th, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Review by Marion Cotter
Marion Cotter is a publisher and theatre reviewer for www.coventgandenlife.com
Vampires, ghosts and madness haunt the novels of horror writer Stephen King, whose fascination with the occult and the dark forces of the mind is well documented in his string of best-sellers. "People want to know why I write such gross stuff", he admits. "I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy ... and keep it in a jar on my desk."
His first published work (I Was a Teenage Grave Robber) concerns a scientist who breeds giant maggots. Carrie is the tale of a repressed teenager who takes gruesome revenge on the classmates who taunt her. The Dark Hall revolves around an author who is terrorised by the physical manifestation of his literary alter ego.
It's no surprise, then, that in Misery, King delves into the fantasy world of a warned mind to show what can happen when love becomes lethal and turns into a near-fatal attraction.
High flying author Paul Sheldon is driving home after collecting an award for the latest in his series of novels about Misery, a 19th century heroine whose life and loves have won him a rapturous female fan club. His car skids off the road in a heavy snowstorm, overturning and leaving him badly injured. Who should come to his rescue before thick snow wipes out all traces of his vehicle but Annie Wilkes, a former nurse with a screw loose who just happens to be his number one fan.
After bundling him into her car and driving him to her remote Colorado log cabin, Annie proceeds to administer not just pain killers but pain, turning her helpless charge into a morphine addict whose shattered legs render him immobile while she forces him to write the best and biggest Misery novel of all.
As anyone who saw the film of the novel starring Kathy Bates will confirm, this only-just-possible plot has all the makings of a chillingly taut thriller with electrifyingly scary moments guaranteed to keep the audience's nerves on a knife edge. But without the right casting, pace and direction it can merely seem absurd and improbable - the macabre fantasy of kid's comic land.
I have to say that this production of Misery, directed by Pat Grosse, didn't work for me. Done well, this is a play that should have the hairs on your neck bristling as the twisted mind of nurse Annie - who we soon learn has knocked off a few babies and old dears in her time - ratchets the agony up another notch for the hapless prisoner she professes to love. At the moment when she hacks his foot off with an axe, our hearts should skip a beat in horror and disbelief. Instead, I was left listening to suppressed laughter from the row behind.
Was it the acting? Yes and no. Poor Jill Batty, playing Annie, was clearly nursing a dreadful cold on the Sunday I saw this production. The cold was clearly gaining the upper hand at some points, when she croaked and coughed her way gamely through the script but understandably failed to cast the necessary menacing chill over the proceedings.
By contrast, Ian Chaplain, as the captive Sheldon, seemed far too jaunty for a chap who has been kidnapped and hobbled by an axe-wielding nutter who is likely to finish him off altogether the minute he completes his magnum opus. His often cheery demeanour and upbeat delivery (perfect, it must be said, for the first and last scenes) didn't really square up with the torment one imagines Sheldon must be going through, or provide the necessary foil to nurse Annie's chilling tauntings.
The result was a disappointingly lightweight production. Instead of crackIing with tension as the stuff of nightmares unfolds, the suspense never rose enough for most of the audience to suspend disbelief, let alone grip the edge of their seats. A powerful two-hander like this requires impeccable casting and direction to work its spell over the audience, and I can't say this production hit the spot.
Simon Humphries provided excellent sound effects, whether portraying the winter storms, Sheldon's car plunging into the trees or tribal drums. As the curtain fell, we were even treated to a reprise of the Beatles' own song Misery. Lighting was similarly well handled by Stephen Ley, with headlights raking across the cabin windows serving to highlight the bleak loneliness of Sheldon's mountain tomb.
Wendy Parry's set design worked well, portraying the oppressive, down-at-heel mountain shack in the depths of Colorado, where Sheldon is held captive. Wardrobe was handled by Kay Perversi.