Ghost Stories @ The Art Theatre, 8 January 2015

ghost storiesThere is a blackboard in the foyer of the theatre that simply says “287,182 people have screamed at Ghost stories. And all have kept the secret.”*   The area around the number shows obvious signs of constant rubbing out, so it looks like someone has the role of updating this on a regular basis. Well, that makes it hard to write about it without giving too much away doesn’t it. But here goes…

The show is exactly what the title suggests, a collection of ghost stories all perfectly fitted together around a narrator. One of the things I enjoy with theatre is seeing how a narrator is worked into the story, and often a show will live or die on the strength of that one character. That is even more true with Ghost Stories, as the narrator, cast as a parapsychologist presenting a lecture, spends long periods alone on the stage, building the tension for the audience as he gives his talk that initially shows his disbelief in ghosts and ghouls, but as things develop you start to suspect something deeper going on in his denial.

The staging is well done. starting with just a lecture rostrum on the front of the stage with the curtain down.  As the stories unfold, the set moves around the performers. For example, the first story is set in an old warehouse type building, and the simple set is just one room, that turns as the actor moves out to walk around the building, turning into a corridor, and then another room. Simple and effective, no doubt helped by the dimmed lighting and the fact the audience isn’t really concerned with the wobbly walls as they move, too focused on waiting for something scary to happen.

Like all good ghost stories, they work best with an audience who are willing to suspend belief, who want to be scared. This is one show that just wouldn’t be the same with a polite demure audience waiting for the appropriate moment to clap and make any noise. Rather the show needs the background chatter as tension rises and falls. The writing is perfectly crafted for this, but what would you expect from a duo whose credits include The League of Gentlemen (Jeremy Dyson) and Derren Brown’s TV and stage shows (Andy Nyman).   You can feel the withholding of breath, the discomfort of the more susceptible members of the audience as the tension builds, the shuffle of bodies as coats are lifted across faces ready to hide from the scare that could happen at any moment  (  actually think I am sitting just under the words at  the bottom of this picture.) It is this tension that makes a good ghost story, making even the most hardened viewer likely to jump when all those around you scream at just the right moment.

And as tonight’s audience included a whole school party taking up the best part of the front four rows, this audience was cannon fodder for the show. Even before it had started you could feel the tension. The eerie music and the flickering lights all creating a tense atmosphere that was having an effect even before the lights dimmed.

When things did really start and we got into the first of the stories, the audience were already primed, and just the rattling of a chain was enough to make some people yelp out well in advance of anything actually scary. But then, that is the art of a good ghost story isn’t it, those false moments when you expect something to happen, luring the audience into the hope that it won’t get any worse, when in fact everyone watching knows that soon something really is going to give you reason to scream.

For me, half the enjoyment tonight was the audience, and I do suspect this is the same most nights. Being in the third row, surrounded by the school group, meant I couldn’t help be drawn in to the tension as they almost sucked the air from the room as they all held their collective breaths. And sitting next to a young teen who spent the whole show with her coat pulled up to her chin, and at time over her whole face, squirming in her seat whenever things got even slightly tense, it all just added to the evening. Even if the clever staging and special effects weren’t going to make me react, having everyone around you jump and scream in unison certainly made sure we all got a fright too.

Ghost Stories is great fun, and even those who don’t do horror, it is still recommended. There is no gore, no long lasting memories of fear, it simply works well in making you jump, scream and then laugh at how simply you have been taken in by someone basically saying boo when you least expect it.

But remember, if you see it, don’t tell anyone the secret, or maybe the ghouls really will hunt you down for spoiling it for others.

* The number may be slightly wrong, and is obviously changed on a regular basis. In fact the words may be slightly wrong too, but the thought is right!


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