Misery @ King’s Head Theatre, London

cast list
Michael Praed
Susan Penhaligon

directed by
Alan Cohen

Adapting a successful film for the stage is no easy task. It should mean returning to the source material (in this case, the novel by Stephen King) and finding the best way to reinterpret the text for a very different medium. Unfortunately, Simon Moore’s adaptation completely fails to do this, apparently unable to unshackle itself from the film that inspired it and make the imaginative leaps necessary to bring the tale successfully to the stage.

The plot is simple and very disturbing. Paul Sheldon (Michael Praed), author of a series of romantic novels featuring a character called Misery Chastain, is rescued from a car crash in the middle of nowhere by ex-nurse Annie Wilkes (Susan Penhaligon). As he wakes to find himself being nursed back to health in Annie’s farmhouse, he learns that she is his “number one fan” and keen to read the new Misery novel when it comes out. When, after reading it, she becomes angry that her heroine dies at the end, she makes Sheldon her prisoner, torturing him into writing a new novel resurrecting the character.

What this production fails to do is bring out the drama of the author gradually realising that he is being held captive with the slow revelation that Annie’s altruism has an agenda tinged with lunacy. This is by no means the fault of the cast. Praed has little to do as the author other than lie in bed, limiting the physicality so important for the stage. He is also hemmed in by a script which gives him very little to work with as he realises that he is not being cared for by Annie but kept prisoner.

Susan Penhaligon puts in an exceptional portrayal of madness but the script leaves us in no doubt from the very beginning that she is a nutter. This is a hopeless flaw, which means that, even for someone who has not seen the film, the dramatic effect of slowly revealing that the woman is not all that she seems is lost virtually from the first minute. This leaves the audience with nothing to do for two hours but sit on uncomfortable seats and watch the play chase its tail.

This is a play too greatly in thrall to the film it wants to be. The use of filmic music gives away too much of the situation that should come through dialogue and performance, and is almost used as a crutch to support a script that cannot carry the tension itself. The sound effects of feet on crunching snow as Annie leaves and comes back end up being laughable attempts to rack up the sense of dread which is sorely lacking on stage.

Ultimately, this is a brave attempt by some talented and experienced people to bring a powerful allegory to the stage. That it fails so spectacularly to convince or even entertain is a genuine disappointment. This is, sadly, one instance where the play should have been left on the theatrical equivalent of the cutting room floor.

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