at the AlmaTavern Theatre

THEATRE Just like the famously terrifying 1990 film that it spawned, Stephen King’s novel – adapted for the stage by Simon Moore – is a thing of intense claustrophobia. Paul Sheldon, a bestselling writer of velvety historical romances, is driving back from an awards ceremony in a Colorado blizzard when his car veers off a cliff, leaving him unconscious and with two broken legs. He is rescued from the wreck by rural eccentric Annie Wilkes, who takes him back to her isolated farmstead and begins to nurse him back to health.

Which is where everything starts to go very wrong for Sheldon. Annie, it turns out, is a) his ‘number one fan’ and b) a schizophrenic loner with psychotic tendencies. Everyone who has ever loved her has died, she tells Sheldon mournfully early on – a tradition she clearly feels duty-bound to continue. Alongside this psychosis, she now holds the man who has given her her only escapism a helpless, bedbound captive – so that when she dislikes the new direction Paul wants to take with his writing, Annie is able to use extreme influence to get him to write what she wants.

It’s an interesting study of power and submission, master and servant: Sheldon, this world-famous author and sophisticate whom we witness at the very start (nice touch) calmly working another adoring crowd at his awards dinner, is reduced to the role of helpless dependent, at the mercy of a lonely and dangerously unpredictable middle-aged woman. Passion doesn’t get darker than this.

In Theatre West’s production, Dee Sadler is a splendidly authentic Annie, with just the right mix of dowdiness and danger, switching nimbly from little-girl skittishness to growling impatience with her captive. Her lusty enthusiasm for Sheldon’s heroine, Misery Chastain, soon becomes as unnerving as her cold rages, as we know one inexorably follows the other. Hampered only by the occasional lapse in her Midwest accent, Sadler’s Annie is a captivating captor.

A few line stumbles aside, Jason Bailey’s Sheldon is also well realised, in a role that doesn’t allow for too many changes of tempo: calm, urbane and patient through his growing terror, and able to use his considerable quiet charm in Annie’s rare softer moments. Ann Stiddard’s set design also works splendidly, conjuring up the functional and slightly flyblown of Annie’s rickety rural home. And the Alma – small, spartan, black-box – is the perfect place to stage this drama of darkness and incarceration.

Indeed, the show’s claustrophobia – we never leave the convalescent’s bedroom and seldom break from the mood of foreboding – is mostly a strength, although you find yourself wishing, at moments, for a change of scene or of tempo. Things do lighten for a while after the interval, when it looks as though Annie has corralled Paul into a writing discipline that may work for them both, but you are aware that she can only escape so far from her murderous depression. The well-staged ending is suitably spectacular, crowning an evening of fairly unremitting tension.

Two strong, thoroughly under-the-skin performances and an atmospheric set make for a compelling study into the underbelly of passion and obsession. And with its confining atmospheres, both physical and emotional, if ‘Misery’ just sometimes makes you share Paul Sheldon's longing for a way out, that is surely part of its power. (Steve Wright)

Rating 3.5 / 5

Copyright Steve Wright 2012

Picture: Ian Fraser