The Haunting of Exham Priory is based on one of my favourite H.P. Lovecraft stories, The Rats in the Walls, and so I was looking forward to seeing how the story – which contains several fantastical elements – would translate from page to stage. Alas, I was left slightly underwhelmed.
The story follows Robert Delapore, who in 1923 leaves America in order to repurchase and restore his old family keep, Exham Priory. The story follows Delapore and his new friend Captain Norrys as they begin to unravel the mystery at the heart of the priory and the truth to Delapore’s sordid family history.
The script is engaging and well thought out. Chris Buxey does a good job adapting the story for the stage, managing to turn a first person perspective recounting into dialogue between the two main characters. Information about the priory’s history is well spaced out in order to hold the audience’s attention and the relationship between Delapore and Norrys is richly drawn. The script is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the original short story, the only addition from Buxey being a secondary storytelling device of a questioning disembodied psychiatrist, looming over Delapore like an omniscient narrator. The text has obviously been approached with a reverence and respect that will not have any Lovecraft fans complaining. However, it seems to me a little drawn out. After all, a dozen page short story should not, in theory, produce a nearly two-hour long play.
The performances are fantastic. David Gilbrook’s Delapore has the booming transatlantic voice and charisma to carry the show through to its conclusion. Thank God this was the case, as the sheer amount of narration and exposition would make a lesser actor crumble, but Gilbrook pulls it off effortlessly. Nicholas Bourne plays Captain Edward Norrys with a youthful vigour contrasted with the horror-filled gaze of one who has seen war.
My main concern with the adaptation comes with the choice of staging. It seems to me that the reason for adapting such a seminal text is to bring out the visual element, thereby distinguishing it from the original. With such a fantastical conclusion (no spoilers) I was naturally curious as to how they would pull this off. The soundscape of the eponymous rats in the walls is disappointing. Despite the characters describing them as thunderous, the sound effects are lacklustre and tepid, and do nothing to incite the implied sense of dread. Similarly, the choice to not even attempt to stage the final act is incredibly frustrating. Seemingly deciding it would be too difficult, the production decides to have Gilbrook pace around the stage and deliver the final act word for word from the book. This prompts the question of whether there is any point to staging it at all. It would have been a remarkably difficult task creating scenery for the finale, but some attempt would have been appreciated.
Overall, however, this play is a refreshing look at the tale for old fans and a new way for a fresh audience to experience the chills that Lovecraft has to offer.
The Haunting of Exham Priory played at the Greenwich Theatre until October 23. It continues to tour.