I don't think I know anyone who doesn't like a good ghost story. That sense of building tension before a revelation that sends a shiver down the spine is quite a delicious prospect to most, even if it carries the risk of a night spent with the light on. The rational minded don't escape, either. To quote Charles Dana, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been afraid of them all my life". The very idea that something utterly inconceivable could reveal manifest before us, most likely when we're at our most vulnerable, is a powerful thought and one that will provide the basis for new and uncanny tales for eternity.
And so we come to Ghost Stories, currently playing at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. Penned by lifelong horror fans Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the announcement of the show sent waves of anticipation across the internet. Dyson's work on The League Of Gentlemen had displayed his ability to blend the horrific with the comedic, and the Christmas special was nothing short of a modern-day recreation of an Amicus portmanteau film. Nyman is well known for his roles in such productions as Dead Set and Severance, as well as having a major role in many of Derren Brown's TV and stage productions. If anyone has the ability to convince a theatre filled with sceptical punters that an otherworldly presence may be making itself known, it's these two guys.
Plot wise, Ghost Stories does exactly what it says on the tin. That's all I'm going to say on the matter. I'd love to tell you what happens on that stage, but I'd be doing you a great disservice. In the words of Andy Nyman, "Everything is so spoiled for us now; trailers & reviews give everything away. We want to preserve as much fear, mystery & excitement as possible. Your readers will be core fans - what a rare & wonderful gift to see something that promises to scare and you have to go into it blind; you don't know where it's set, how many cast there are, etc!" He's quite right. This show thrives on the thrill of the unknown and the more specifics you know, the less power the ghosts will have over you. Even the few reviews I read for this, although I didn't realise it at the time, gave far more away than I'd have liked. My advice - Don't read anything else. Just go see it cold.
So, is Ghost Stories scary? Well, that all depends. It'll certainly make you jump, probably many times. The writers have been very careful to construct the play to cross a number of very basic human fears, not just the supernatural. Some of these themes are quite universal, so it's highly likely that you'll find some sections very creepy at the least. Throughout the play, audience members groaned and wailed not only at events happening on stage, but also at concepts being invoked. "Oh fuck - that's no good" uttered a large man behind me during one of the latter scenes. The tremor in his voice indicated what he was witnessing had reached out from the stage, isolated him from the hundreds of people surrounding him, and touched a chord of fear in his heart. It's a powerful thing to do, and Ghost Stories is more than capable of chilling the soul or stealing a scream from jaded lips.
For fans of movies such as The Haunting or Dead of Night, or the writings of people like Algernon Blackwood or M. R. James, this is a rare treat. Not since The Woman In Black has a theatrical production so perfectly encapsulated all that is great about the traditional ghost story. As you watch the play, you feel like you're witnessing a compilation of classic moments from tales you read under the cover by torchlight as a child. What's nice to see is the play acknowledges the variety of types of ghosts that feature in these great stories, be they scary, vengeful, melancholic, tragic or just plain hellish. This is like going to a fine dining restaurant and asking the chef to serve you the best he has - you know each course will be a treat and place your trust in the hands of a master. The anticipation of what comes next can be as delicious as what arrives.
And these supernatural feasts are served up with rare style. Utilising a dazzling array of theatrical tricks and techniques an initially simple set reveals it can transform itself in unexpected ways throughout the show. Coupled with excellent lighting and sound design, this provides some quite spectacular images that can be as beautiful as they are atmospheric. The best effect will be gained from sitting in the stalls, but even viewed from on high, as I did, it doesn't disappoint. The cast, be they one or one hundred, are uniformly excellent, easing you into whatever situation they're confronted with and inviting you warmly to share in their terror.
The show runs until April 17th and is essential for lovers of atmospheric horror. At the moment, it's not clear if Ghost Stories will transfer anywhere else after the Hammersmith run, so this could be your final chance to experience these theatrical ghosts. I'll give special mention to the show's programme, which is one of the best I've ever seen. It's worth reading from cover to cover, containing excellent features on films, books and a short story by Dyson. Even if you don't spend the night constantly turning the light on to ensure that IS a shirt on the back of the door and not some blasphemous wraith come to warp your very soul, you'll still enjoy this superbly crafted traditional piece of horror. An exceptional show of the kind I wish there were more of.
Review by Paul Bird
For more information on Ghost Stories The Show check out the official site here.
|Written by Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman|
|Directed by Jeremy Dyson, Sean Holmes & Andy Nyman|