The Neptune Theatre production of Misery is a delightful mix of suspense and humour with terrific performances from its two central players.
Misery’s primary joy comes from viewing it purely as a psychological horror thriller tempered by its darkly humorous bent.
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1987 novel by William Goldman, Goldman was also responsible for the screenplay for the 1990 film starring Kathy Bates and James Caan, for which Bates received an Oscar.
A pretty faithful adaptation from novel to film to stage, Misery is the story of a novelist, Paul Sheldon (Hugh Thompson), kidnapped by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Samantha Wilson), following a car crash.
While nursing him back to health, Annie reads Paul’s latest book, a complete departure from the Misery Chastain romance novels he has written to this point. Deeming it to be filled with “cockadoodie” profanity, Annie’s wicked underbelly begins to emerge. Her dark side continues to manifest as she discovers Paul has killed off her beloved Misery in what was to be the final edition of the series.
On its surface, it all becomes an excuse for the ensuing cat-and-mouse game between Paul and Annie inside the remote cabin where he is being held captive. Dig a little deeper, though, and discover this almost playful horror story is also a giant metaphor.
“Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan,” revealed Stephen King in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. But while King fans will be smug in this knowledge, and it adds some additional depth, Misery’s primary joy comes from viewing it purely as a psychological horror thriller tempered by its darkly humorous bent.
Director Jeremy Webb finds the perfect balance between the humour and the frightening reality of Paul Sheldon’s predicament. And while it would be easy to play much more of it for laughs, Webb ensures they never overshadow the horrors endured by Paul at Annie’s hands.
Much of what makes this Neptune production so engaging comes from the performances of Wilson and Thompson.
As the hobbled novelist, Thompson is up to the challenge of spending much of his time stuck in bed. However, when he does venture out on the wheelchair Annie eventually provides, the tension is real. Watching him drag himself across the stage or desperately try to return to his room before Annie gets home is a sheer delight. Thompson is a master of the reaction, setting the tone early on with a single look as Annie begins to unravel.
Wilson excels here despite having to step into mighty big boots due to the inevitable comparisons to Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning performance in the film version. Effortlessly swinging between Annie’s obsession with Paul, her beloved novels and the madwoman that lies just beneath her fragile psyche, Wilson, too, finds the necessary balance that makes Annie so creepy.
Andrew Bigelow makes good use of his brief appearances as Sherrif Buster.
Andrew Cull’s revolving stage effortlessly moves us from various rooms in Annie’s cabin, which is why Paul’s ventures outside the bedroom are as tension-filled as they are. The silhouettes of the Colorado mountains with their black tendrils reaching down into Annie’s cabin provides an eerie nod to the Upside Down of Stranger Things. Likewise, the fleeting glimpses of Annie’s shrine to Paul as the stage revolves are inspired.
Jordan Palmer’s sound design provides an equally creepy backdrop to the action, including a couple of clever song choices, like the ironic and grin-inducing “Someone To Watch Over Me.” Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting design also helps to add to the tension.
Despite an opening night that sometimes lacked the tightness the script demands and a disappointing lack of jump-scares as written, Neptune’s Misery is a great way to celebrate the spooky season.
Misery by William Goldman. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Directed by Jeremy Webb. A Neptune Theatre production. On stage at Neptune’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until November 6. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.