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The Ice House (Derek Lister, UK, 1978)

This is the last of a distinguished line from the BBC: the Ghost Stories for Christmas series. It’s been revived in recent years; this short play may help to explain why it was abandoned.

One fine summer our hero Paul (John Stride), a slow-moving but amiable fellow of a little over forty, is staying at a health spa set in a splendid country house. He finds an incongruity; the young male staff have very cold hands, even the ones in the sauna – “a touch of the cools” they call it. Couple this with the ice house of the title (a Victorian era stone chilled storage house in the grounds) and we can make a fair stab at guessing the plot already. Probably the same device that was used in the chiller Shock Treatment (1973). But that French title boasted a Mediterranean climate and full frontal nudity (“Come on, lets have a seaweed sauna!”, “Hurrah!!” etc.) so I suspect this will struggle to compete.

I worry about giving away too much of the plot, but on reflection the plot doesn’t matter. The hotel is owned by a youngish brother and sister, very close. He reminds me of the guest who called Basil a “grotty little man” in Fawlty Towers, while she (Elizabeth Romilly) looks like a gypsy just down from Oxford. The cream of the English upper-middle class then. The rest of the guests are getting on in age, so Paul is singled out for a warm welcome; expect a lot of expositional dialogue from these two.

One more thing to mention: there’s a vine growing over the ice house, with just two flowers, one red one white, entangled unhealthily close together. That’s a real puzzler: where have I seen something so close in concept this could almost be a metaphor? Hmm.

Here’s the heart of the problem: not only does the script consist of the lowest kind of banalities, the characters don’t act out their parts, they just stand around quoting their lines into the air. I don’t know why the director chose a style of such empty pretension. Perhaps he hoped to create a gently otherworldly atmosphere, but the result seems like an under-rehearsed school play. We must “mull over” the concepts in our minds afterwards I expect.

Meanwhile Paul (our hero) like a typical Englishman is a little too eager to oblige his hosts. The enduring image is of a middle-aged man ambling in carpet slippers to his DOOM.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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