“a well-oiled piece of theatrical machinery, which can be trusted to generate the audience reaction it was created to produce”
Ghost Stories is something of a theatrical phenomenon. Premiering at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2010, it has since toured extensively in the UK and across the globe, and was also, in 2017, turned into a film. Unusually, the play’s publicity campaign does not employ production shots, and critics and audience alike are asked to ‘keep the secrets of Ghost Stories‘, in order to ensure that new audiences are alive to the show’s surprises. As a publicity tactic, this can only be admired, and it has clearly played a big part in this production’s success. The pre-show buzz had a very particular energy in Brighton last night, and it was clear that there were a lot of horror fans in the audience. As the play’s chief protagonist states in the play’s opening: for the most part, people come to this kind of show to play a game with fear. It is a very particular type of sensory titillation. On this front, it seemed the show did not disappoint. There were certainly gasps and screams aplenty throughout, and they pretty much happened on cue, in terms of the theatrical techniques employed to produce them.
Broadly speaking, this is a production that operates on two levels – the naturalistic, and that of heightened horror. If each of these speak to you equally, you are in for a treat; if, like this reviewer, you favour one mode significantly over the other, the likelihood is that you will find the show tonally uneven and ultimately somewhat frustrating. There is some very good acting to be seen here – Joshua Higgott as Professor Goodman and Paul Hawkyard as Tony Matthews give particularly detailed performances, and there is strong work too from Richard Sutton – and writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman have come up with a neat narrative structure that works effectively. The design team too – Jon Bausor, James Farncombe (Lighting) and Nick Manning (Sound) – have created a slick and atmospheric series of worlds within a world. Scott Penrose’s special effects are a massive part of the show, but again, are a potentially divisive element. To this reviewer, there were elements that smacked rather too much of a fairground ghost train, and took away from the real fear generated by the power of the acting and the narrative itself, but plenty of audience members seemed to have their experience enhanced by these moments.
In essence, Ghost Stories is a well-oiled piece of theatrical machinery, which can be trusted to generate the audience reaction it was created to produce. There are shocks aplenty, but ultimately it is a formulaic genre piece – albeit quite a clever one – and therefore actually very unsurprising.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Theatre Royal Brighton until 15th February then UK tour continues
Ghost Stories arrives at the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End just in time for the season of spooks and all things that go bump in the night. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s show, which they wrote and directed, has enjoyed considerable success since it premiered as a co-production with the Lyric Hammersmith and the Liverpool Everyman in 2010, going on to tour around the world, and even becoming a film. The Ambassadors gets into the act right from the moment you enter the foyer, with lots of spooky sound effects and mysterious numbers chalked up on the walls. This theme continues once you take your seat, building up a nice atmosphere with the help of hazard tape and flickering worker lights. Since this is an eighty minute show without an interval, ushers are kind enough to remind the audience that if they leave the auditorium once the show has begun, they cannot be readmitted. It doesn’t hurt the sense of anticipation by making one feel a bit trapped as one sits down.
Dyson and Nyman clearly know their stuff, and how to build suspense. There are a few nods to other classic tales in this genre. Fans of the paranormal will enjoy the way in which the actors set up each story, ably assisted by a flexible set, designed by Jon Bausor, but most of all by the sound and lighting effects (designed by Nick Manning and James Farncombe, with special effects by Scott Penrose). The effects cue each shocking denouement and can be on the loud and bright side, so be warned. Simon Lipkin as Professor Goodman gives a solid performance as the academic whose career has been spent debunking paranormal phenomena. Naturally, Ghost Stories is all about the three cases he can’t explain. Garry Cooper as Tony Matthews, Preston Nyman as Simon Rifkind, and Richard Sutton as Mike Priddle all shine as the hapless protagonists of the three tales that follow. Richard Sutton gives a particularly good performance as loathsome dealmaker Mike Priddle, but all three succeed in upping the creep factor. Despite these strengths, however, so much of the success of this show depends on careful preparation of the audience, and this can feel a bit manipulative. Stories about the paranormal tend to be at their most effective when viewed in a darkened space with no distractions—such as a cinema, or one’s own living room—alone in the house, of course. There’s just a little too much distraction in the Ambassador’s auditorium with the hazard tape and the flickering lights. Fans may find the film version of Ghost Stories gives more bump in the night for your buck than the theatrical production.
But if this is your first experience of a show about the paranormal, you will probably enjoy Ghost Stories. It’s well crafted, and well performed. More experienced connoisseurs may feel that the special effects overpower the storytelling, however, and don’t give the audience’s imagination enough space to heighten the horror. Because isn’t it what we don’t see or hear, and can’t explain, that create the ultimate shocks in a world so ready with easy answers to every question?
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Chris Payne
Ambassadors Theatre until 4th January then UK tour continues