Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
The Lyric Hammersmith
The Lowry, Salford
Ghost Stories is undergoing a first UK tour and features a plea for the audience to keep silent on any twists and turns of the story. This seems a bit redundant as the film version has been out for ages and the DVD is now readily available in supermarkets. The only aspect of the movie that really did not work was the framing sequence featuring a roving debunker of spiritualists—a profession that died out back in the days of Conan Doyle and Houdini.
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s play avoids this shortcoming using instead an arrogant Professor Goodman (Joshua Higgott) delivering a lecture with a ‘rational’ explanation for events in three ghost stories. Of course, the audience may not share the professor’s scepticism. This is more in line with traditional ghost stories. M R James, who pretty much set the template, always included an intellectual in his spooky tales. It also offers a brief history of how ghost stories developed and a much-needed opportunity for some tension-relieving laughs as Professor Goodman explains why audiences attend shows like Ghost Stories.
There is no real connection between the three tales although the theme of guilt hovers over them. The unease generated by the stories is not due to fear of death but rather of the unknown or the unnatural—something concealed by the shadows. There may not be an actual threat to life but there is an atmosphere of malevolence. Perhaps the scariest thing about the stories is the lack of any sense of justice. The characters may not be pleasant but even the most judgemental person would find it hard to say they deserve to be haunted by the supernatural. In this respect, Ghost Stories reflects the arbitrary nature of real life—one of the characters is coping with a child rendered comatose by a hit and run driver.
Ghost Stories works marvellously on stage. It becomes a communal event—people always feel more at ease letting out the occasional squeal of terror or burst of nervous laughter if they are part of a group. Nyman and Dyson, who direct with Sean Holmes, set a strong, edgy atmosphere. Even before the play starts, ghoulish sounds echo around the theatre, the safety curtain is a stained shroud-like cloth and safety lights, as at the scene of an accident, hang around the stage.
The staging is claustrophobic and unsettling. James Farncombe’s lighting designs make a vital contribution. The stage is permanently in degrees of darkness. Characters step out of, or merge into, shadow. The murky environment makes it possible for characters to leave small rooms and wander darkened corridors. Disturbing images flicker briefly out of the gloom so the audience is never sure what they have seen.
Ghost Stories is clearly a labour of love. Nyman and Dyson are fans of the horror genre and pay tribute to their influences but do not hesitate to stamp their individual approach on the play. Whilst they are comfortable with discrete terrors, they cheerfully go all out to scare the pants off the audience. This is particularly the case with the concluding sequence where Scott Penrose’s special effects take precedence with inanimate objects coming to life and characters appearing in two places at the same time.
Theatre and the horror genre both rely on people being willing to suspend disbelief and use their imaginations. Ghost Stories exploits this approach to maximum effect. It will delight any audience willing to take a chance on the tense and eerie atmosphere and may even attract people who are not regular theatregoers. It is terrifyingly good.
Reviewer: David Cunningham