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Joe MacFadden interview: I love it when the crowd screams in terror

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Former Holby City Joe MacFadden is enjoying the terrifying effect his new role has on theatre audiences watching stage show The House on Cold Hill.

The Strictly Come Dancing winner is playing a new home owner, Ollie, who has just sold up his web business to buy the seemingly perfect house in an idyllic location.

The House on Cold Hill (8823190)
The House on Cold Hill (8823190)

But things soon take a sinister turn for the family - and they are faced with all manner of creepiness, including a haunted Alexa device that has had theatre audiences creaming in their seats.

Joe says: “At the start of the play looks like my character Ollie and his wife have an amazing life and everything is going really well. Then they discover that there is a lot more in the house than they bargained for

“The great thing about it is as well as being a ghost story it is set in the present day and lots of weird technological things are going on. So, an Alexa starts piping up and saying weird and spooky things to us and our daughter is on the phone to her friend and they Facetime each other and this old lady appears in the background. So, it is bang up to date and as well as it being quite spooky there is a thriller element to it too.”

The House on Cold Hill (8823096)
The House on Cold Hill (8823096)

The show is about Ollie [Joe McFadden] - who made a very successful business in internet web design and he’s sold it, which is what gives him the money to buy the house - and his wife Caro [Rita Simons], who is a lawyer. They’ve been townies all their lives and they decide to follow the dream so they buy this big old wreck in the country, moving to it with the idea that it’s going to be their forever home and they’re going to spend the next ten years restoring it. Then they find out that they may not the only people living in it.

Joe promises there are plenty of jump scares in the play and says the effect on audiences every night has been fun for the cast

“ It is very scary. The great thing about creating tension and spooking an audience is you can feel quite powerful as a performer having that effect on people.

“We have had a few screamers, yes, and we really love it when that happens. It does have a massive effect on some people. It always really tickles the rest of the audience too.

“There are also really great laughs in there and it think the audience will enjoy the lighter moments all the more because they are really spooked and quire uncomfortable in places.”

The House on Cold Hill (8823094)
The House on Cold Hill (8823094)

The play, by thriller writer Peter James is based on a true story about the author, who bought a spooky old house to renovate with his former wife in 1988.

Joe says: “He bought this house and he kept seeing things and his wife was seeing things but he didn’t want to say anything to his wife because he didn’t want to scare her. For a while they were all experiencing all these supernatural things going on and it actually prompted him to then sell the house. so he must have really believed in it to go to those lengths.”

Joe is keeping his mind open about the possibility that ghosts exist: “Even though I haven't seen anything, I don't particularly want to see anything,” he says.

“I don’t disbelieve in ghosts and I know enough sensible people who do believe in them

“I’m quite reluctant about all of that but I am quite open to the possibility that it exists because, as I say, I know people who absolutely swear blind that it has happened to them.”

The change of pace from intense dancing rehearsals for Strictly and, before that, starring in Holby City has been welcome for the actor.

The House on Cold Hill (8823110)
The House on Cold Hill (8823110)

He says: “I absolutely loved Strictly, but it was really intense and it was also exhausting at the end so it was quite nice to leave it for a while.

“I have done lots of theatre in the past it’s a very different discipline so having your days free is lovely. I do really enjoy doing theatre because you get that buzz and an instant reaction it is really rewarding as an actor.

My ideal scenario is to get back on telly again but if the nice parts on stage come along as an actor you go where the work is. I’m not in the lucky position where i get to have a career plan. if there's a nice part in a production that I want to be in then i will take it.”

Of working on Holby City, he says: “The cast and crew are famously lovely and everyone has a nice time so it’s a bit of a curse because you don’t really want to leave and it is very easy to get settled there. But that is a lovely problem to have as an actor.

“It’s not very good for you to stay in the same role for too long because you get known too well for the open part and perhaps you get a bit pigeon holed.

“You get very comfortable doing the same role for four years and you know the character really well at that point and it would be too easy to stay life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Early next year he will be back in Cambridge with another show, the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, so it will be time for him to dust off his dancing shoes again.

“I’m really looking forward to getting into practice again because I spent all that time on it and it would be a shame to let it go to waste,” he says

Rita Simons, who plays mum Caro in the show reveals what scares her on stage

What drew you to The House On Cold Hill?

I’m a massive fan of mysteries and thrillers. When I was a kid and probably way too young I loved watching really scary films and I’m into anything mysterious or scary, which this certainly is in places. I couldn’t put the script down when I first read it – I was gripped!

The House on Cold Hill (8823090)
The House on Cold Hill (8823090)

How would you sum up your character

Caro is a very family-oriented wife and mother but, as a solicitor, someone who is also very driven. I think she wears the trousers in the marriage but I think all women wear the trousers and are quietly in control. She’s a smart cookie but she loves her family.

Are there ways in which you can relate to them?

I am a wife and a mother and I do love my kids but I don’t have a Barbour jacket, although interestingly I do come from a family of solicitors - my mum, my brother, my grandfather. But I’m the odd bod of the family who wanted to become an actress.

What particular challenges does the play present to you as an actor?

I’m used to playing extremes. With the last role I did on stage, Legally Blonde, my character was a way-extreme, New York hairdresser and my TV roles have always been really gritty and I’m often in hysterics or someone’s died. So what’s quite difficult for me is that in the beginning when we’re setting up the tension it’s quite even-tempered and that’s a hard place to place yourself as an actress, not having hysterics of any sort. It’s always easier to play one extreme or the other.

What do you feel makes Peter James unique amongst thriller writers?

Like all of Peter’s books The House On Cold Hill is such a page-turner. That’s why they make such good stage adaptations. You get that sense of tension exactly as if you were turning a page and also because it’s modern-day people can really relate to his stories.

The House on Cold Hill (8823092)
The House on Cold Hill (8823092)

Why do you think audiences are drawn to theatrical spine-tinglers?

I think audiences love to be on the edge of their seat and sometimes jumping out of it in a theatre full of other people feeling that same tension. This is my first thriller so it’s all new for me. In fact, it’s my first stage play as opposed to a musical so it’s scary for different reasons.

Do you scare easily yourself?

I don’t scare at all, probably because I grew up watching horror films and am immune to them now. The only film that’s ever scared me as an adult is The Exorcist, especially because I watched the making-of documentary beforehand and so much weird stuff went on on set.

What are the roles people most recognise you for?

Rita: People shout ‘Roxy” at me about 40 times a day, but then I was on EastEnders for ten years. I’m just used to it now.

Is there anything you enjoy about stage work in particular?

I love the live feedback and how you can instantly see the reaction. In TV you never see the reaction, you just hear about it. I’m the queen of nerves. I’m terrible. I build a trench every night walking up and down in my dressing room and it takes me about 20 or 30 performances to calm down, but then I love the adrenaline that goes with all that. You can’t say ‘Cut’ and you’re so ex- posed but once I’ve calmed down I cannot wait to get on stage. Doing Legally Blonde last year was the first time I’d done musical theatre and I loved it, and I’m loving this too. I love touring and I love acting full stop.

The House on Cold Hill is at Cambridge Arts Theatre from May 20-25. Tickets start at £24. Box office: 01223 503333 or cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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