Ghost Stories

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman
Lyric Hammersmith (Main House)

Garry Cooper as Tony Matthews Credit: Chris Payne
Simon Lipkin as Professor Goodman Credit: Chris Payne

First staged nearly ten years ago and now back with some new cast and the Lyric auditorium wrapped round with danger-keep-out tape, this long-lasting production comes with warnings that it “contains moments of extreme shock and tension” and discourages those of a nervous disposition from attending.

In essence, it presents three separate ghost stories as case studies of paranormal happenings in a lecture by Professor of Parapsychology Philip Goodman (played by Simon Lipkin), with each of these stories enacted.

The first is the experience of night watchman Tony Matthews (Garry Cooper) on duty in a derelict industrial building where strange things happen. The next has teenager Simon Rifkind (Preston Nyman) who is driving his mum’s car without a licence when he runs something over. Then there is Mike Priddle’s story: a work-obsessed businessman whose wife is having a baby. But, of course, it is what happens to Goodman himself that proves the most important piece of the paranormal puzzle.

The producers request I stay mum about what actually happens so no spoilers here. How much you enjoy Ghost Stories perhaps depends on your attitude to ghost stories in general and what you bring to the theatre. In response to a request from the Professor, a large part of the audience raised their hands when asked who actually believed in ghosts, a much smaller number responded as having had a paranormal experience.

Goodman claims the Bible as the first source to mention ghosts with the Resurrection, that 7th-century Pope Gregory gave Church credence, though they remained a religious phenomenon until the Reformation made them secular. His historical account may be questionable but he is certainly right in saying that, with ghost stories and their theatrical telling, we are deliberately playing a game with fear but along with fear comes attempts to counter it. Our response to the shock of horror is often to laugh nervously.

There were screams from a few members of the audience on press night but there was also a great deal of laughter and not necessarily nervous laughter. The guy next to me found much of it so comic he was making the seats shake.

Disappointingly (for I enjoy being frightened in safe situations), I was neither scared nor found it very funny. But I have to say I was equally unmoved by the stage version of The Exorcist and found it thin on thrills when others found it scary.

I suspect that to be frightened I have to identify much more with character and situation to be able to share the experience. That is not easy, for in these stories they are presented as example specimens rather than rounded people.

The actors give excellent performances with immaculate timing but we learn very little about the people they are playing. Only the Professor makes any real contact with the audience and involves them directly.

Perhaps, however unintentionally, I say, “come scare me,” more as a challenge than an invitation and put up a subconscious barrier. That doesn’t stop my admiring the conviction of the performers and the adept ingenuity of the staging. The direction by the dramatists and Sean Holmes, Jon Bausor’s design, Nick Manning’s sound, James Farncombe’s lighting and Scott Penrose’s special effects come together with precision to be very effective in building an atmosphere pregnant with possibility.

Since 2010, this production has successfully hit the fright button for people in four continents—but Ghost Stories won’t give me nightmares!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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