The Small Hand (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, November 8th, then Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, from November 10th – 15th)

There are screams a-plenty in the new stage version of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story The Small Hand, which boasts some impressive design and great acting – but there are times when you wonder if you might get more scares from a visit to a haunted house at a funfair.

It is entirely understandable that someone should seek to dramatise the author’s 2010 novel following the enormous theatrical success of her earlier fear-filled The Woman in Black. But while the book genuinely causes the flesh to creep and the blood to curdle, this adaptation by Clive Francis feels laboured and the spine doesn’t tingle for long.

The tale of the art seller who stumbles upon a derelict house in the depths of Sussex and starts to suffer panic attacks and nightmares while being visited by the sensation of a sinister small hand and visions of a young boy is the sort of thing that could have audiences jumping out of their seats and peering between their fingers, so it’s a big disappointment that it seldom does.

The meatiness of the book and the build-up of tension therein is necessarily truncated for the stage, but the result looks like something M.R. James and Charles Dickens might have tackled well in a few pages and which cried out to be turned into a half hour Christmas ghost story on TV rather than a two-hour play.

What is particularly frustrating about this production is that so many of the individual elements are spot on – but for some reason they just don’t gel.

Roy Marsden’s direction, for example, captures the vital light and shade in the story and the combined sound, visuals and set design are wonderfully atmospheric, although there is, perhaps, too much reliance on screams and noises that are not always relevant but added for effect.

Diane Keen and Robert Duncan are terrific as narrators and between them play all the extra male and female roles from stern copper and Scottish housekeeper to desperate brother and sympathetic psychoanalyst. Maybe they don’t need to try so hard with different accents, because their strong acting ability is sufficient for the audience to differentiate between the characters.

Andrew Lancel is magnificent as the central character Adam Snow, haunted and hunted as a seemingly chance diversion en route to meeting a client becomes a terrifying descent into madness. It’s a demanding, energetic role played perfectly and the audience can only be sucked in to his growing trauma.

In fact, when the final apparition faded and the last heartbeat pulsed, it was tempting to wonder if the most effective way of presenting this story would be to invite Andrew Lancel to read the book to you personally by candlelight on a dark  and stormy night – now that *would* send shivers up the spine!

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