Written for The Public Reviews
“Please keep the secrets of Ghost Stories,” implores a tannoy announcement at the end of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s show. What is no secret is the production’s undoubted success, from its first days at the Liverpool Playhouse, to a record-breaking 13-month run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and international performances since. Now the show returns to the West End, at the rather more boutique Arts Theatre.
And certainly the smaller auditorium, creaking seats and all, lends itself to the air of apprehension and suspense. Dyson and Nyman’s play comprises a series of short, seemingly unrelated stories, which form part of a presentation by a slightly nervy professor who seeks to suggest that “percipients” – people who believe they have had supernatural experiences – are, in fact, more likely to have other, more mundane, reasons for their encounters with ghosts. As Professor Goodman, Paul Kemp is a genial and engaging host, combining wit and warmth with elements of the sinister that set the tone for the evening.
The stories themselves are, save for discussions with Goodman at the start of each, solo performances – one person, on a mostly darkened stage, with the dread that he may not be alone as he thought… While the structure of each story is, in hindsight, pretty similar, there is enough variety of character and performance to stop the simple formula from interfering with the audience’s enjoyment.
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As one might expect, the stage lighting – or lack of it – adds substantially to Ghost Stories’ sense of atmosphere. Many a scene is played in near darkness, illuminated only by a single torchbeam. Combined with some impressive audio – and, at one point, olfactory – cues, the principle that “less is more” certainly plays out here, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill the dark onstage void.
As the play progresses, clues begin to surface that these stories may not be as disparate as first suggested. Naturally, to say more would be to give away too many secrets, but the show saves its most chilling, most gruesome visual trickery for last. It’s also the portion of the play that is the creepiest, while being the least engineered for the quick shock reaction – and becomes all the more effective for that.
The lack of an interval means that Ghost Stories’ pace never lets up. And at under an hour and a half, nor does it overstay its welcome – instead, delivering a steady, heady mix of spooks, chills and macabre comedy, with plenty of chance to recover one’s composure before bedtime.
Just, you know, remember to check under the bed when you get home. You never know what may be lurking there…
Photo shows David Cardy in the 2011 production of Ghost Stories. Photographer: Helen Maybanks