Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

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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

Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London3.5Scott Matthewman2014-03-17 23:58:55Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

Park Avenue Cat, Arts Theatre

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I’m not going to devote a full review to Park Avenue Cat, because I’ve already wasted enough of my life on this poor quality comedy currently playing at the Arts Theatre (also, because I want to field test my WordPress-powered blog’s “aside” format, but that’s just the techie in me).

A good calibre of cast – Gray O’Brien, Tessa Peake-Jones, Josefina Gabrielle and Daniel Weyman – struggle with a tale of a woman who can’t seem to decide between her rich but emotionally unconnected boyfriend, or her super-rich and extremely randy ex. Would that we all had such troubles…

The bulk of the action takes place in a therapist’s office, which belies most of the play’s problems – everybody talks about their feelings at every opportunity. I know plays that are all subtext can be exhausting, but believe me, those with none at all are far worse.

Park Avenue Cat, Arts Theatre1Scott Matthewman2011-07-26 14:27:05I’m not going to devote a full review to Park Avenue Cat, because I’ve already wasted enough of my life on this poor quality comedy currently playing …

Haunted, Arts Theatre

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All the publicity material for Jon Claydon and Tim Lawler’s first play implies an intense, psychological thriller, so it’s a surprise when the lights come up on a typical middle class comedy of manners in the Abigail’s Party mould.

As the guests arrive at the new Southwark flat of Alex (Jessie Wallace), seemingly inconsequential chatter divulges the nature of the relationships most effectively – old boyfriend Bryan, best mate Erica and her husband, and school misfit Helen, who appears to have been invited by mistake. As the dialogue unfolds, it occurs that the title of the play may be a misdirection, with each of the characters haunted by past mistakes.

In these opening sequences, it is Caroline Catz who stands out. Her Erica is feisty, humorous and in control, with the rest of the cast circling around her. It’s only as the play progresses that the nature of hostess Alex’s back story, and her uneasy relationship with her heavily discounted new apartment, starts to darken the proceedings. This is Abigail’s Party directed by Wes Craven.

As the play swerves downwards into psychological horror and the stage darkens, Wallace shines. Underwhelming in the initial scenes, later events call on her every acting ability and she is able to lend considerable weight to scenes that in the wrong hands would risk being ridiculously farcical.

It is in these scenes also that Claydon and Lawler’s script shows its weaknesses. As the lights go out, characters frequently rush off stage for seemingly no other reason than to allow two others to have a tete-a-tete in front of the audience. Sue Devaney’s Helen suffers from an indistinct development that never adequately explains her change in character. It feels as if the writers needed a reason to get the denouement they have chosen – which is shocking, visceral and superbly enacted by both Wallace and Devaney – but in doing so have skipped a few pages that allow the audience to make real sense of it. And after the biggest shock of the evening, the ending seems perfunctory and the theatrical equivalent of ending mid-sentence.

Haunted, Arts Theatre2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:24:02All the publicity material for Jon Claydon and Tim Lawler’s first play implies an intense, psychological thriller, so it’s a surprise when the lig…

The Viewing Room, Arts Theatre

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The Arts Theatre’s new production tries hard to be a blackly comic commentary on post-terrorist surveillance culture, but only manages to succeed in small bursts.

Set in the near future after a ‘Second Big Attack’, a suburban couple take part in a new programme in which a convicted criminal is incarcerated in their front room. Leonard Roberts as Kyle, trapped upstage, is highly effective in dominating proceedings, while James Flynn and Samantha Wright flitter and twitter in front of him. Indeed, it is Roberts’ deadpan, imposing stature that just about manages to save the play, finding wit and eliding over plot holes in a script that has too little of the former and far too many of the latter.

After a lacklustre first act, things pick up dramatically post-interval when the couple realise that they are not harbouring a petty thief, as they thought, but a convicted murderer – and must administer a death sentence by lethal injection. With each of Kyle’s guards struggling with their conscience, and wondering whether his protestations of innocence are genuine, the cracks in their relationship begin to show. While the paths the characters take is not hard to predict for the audience, Samantha Wright at least manages to elicit some depth and sincerity to a character which could easily have become a cipher.

All is thrown away again, though, before the play reaches its end. A revelation that the video cameras are not being monitored, after all, both creates another yawning plot hole and drives a body blow to any comment the play may have to say about contemporary surveillance culture. Like the denouement of the play itself, this is a fatal blow, administered in such a clumsy way that it undoes all that has gone before.

Reviewed for The Stage

The Viewing Room, Arts Theatre2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:33:52The Arts Theatre’s new production tries hard to be a blackly comic commentary on post-terrorist surveillance culture, but only manages to succeed in…