Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s theatrical fright fest Ghost Stories has been terrifying audiences since it first opened at Liverpool Playhouse in 2010. From there it has gone on to be performed in Lyric Hammersmith, the Duke of York in West End, and even as far away as Toronto, Shanghai, and Lima. It’s not only known for leaving audiences scared senseless but also for the secrecy surrounding the show: there are no production photos of the play, just pictures and video of audience members reacting to it. Some of the play’s secrets were of course unveiled in the 2017 film adaptation by Nyman and Dyson, but even if you have seen it and are thus familiar with the story, I can guarantee that the play will still have some tricks up its sleeve that will catch you off guard. I was fortunate enough to catch Ghost Stories as it passed through my neck of the woods, and I can honestly say it was one the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.
A couple of nights before the show I receive an e-mail from the theatre informing me to arrive on time, as late arrivals will not be permitted in. I am also advised that should I leave at any point during the show, I will not be let back in. There is no intermission. With my interest suitably piqued, me and my companion arrive well ahead of time to find our seats. The atmosphere at the theatre hall is electric, the whole room buzzing with excitement. Soon the same advice delivered in the e-mail is heard from the loudspeakers, the doors shut, and we eagerly wait for the show to start. And boy, what a start it is! Naturally, I cannot go into any detail about the scares and tricks of the play, but I can divulge that a classic piece of horror soundtrack music plays a part here, and that alone left me elated with expectation.
The play begins with Dr. Goodman (Joshua Higgott), a professor of parapsychology, delivering a lecture about the supernatural–more specifically, ghosts. He introduces the audience to three cases of paranormal encounters that have left even the good doctor somewhat puzzled. As the 2017 film has made the plotline fairly well known, it’s no longer a secret that these stories include a creepy last shift with a lonely night watchman (Paul Hawkyard), an otherworldly encounter between a distressed motorist (Gus Gordon) and something lurking in the woods, and a possible brush with a poltergeist as witnessed by a cocky businessman (Richard Sutton). As stated before, even if you are familiar with the film, the play offers a completely new insight to these stories and seeing them performed live is a scare experience like none other. In other words, don’t think for a second that you know what’s coming just because you know the story.
Performances were fantastic from all the cast respectively. Joshua Higgott brilliant as the leading force of the story, offering suspense and humour in equal measures. Same is true of rest of the cast, with Richard Sutton’s take on the arrogant businessman Mr. Priddle deserving a special mention. He is truly obnoxious, yet somehow simultaneously tragic and above all, hilarious. This of course is the other aspect of Ghost Stories that makes it the success that it is: the comedy. Besides the copious amount of scares, there is a constant undercurrent of humour that somehow marries perfectly with all the frights. Some of the laughs are naturally due to the nervousness of the audience and many of the biggest scares of the show were indeed followed up with roaring laughter of people that have just had the living daylights scared out of them, but even so, the humorous side of the show is definitely one of its strong suits. It gives the otherwise quite dark tale a little bit of levity, as well as working as a wonderful tool to lull you in a false sense of security before the next scare gets you.
The set design was superbly executed, with revolving props morphing the stage to various different rooms and spaces. As one can imagine, light and sound play a big part in any live horror show and they have certainly been utilised here to the nth degree. While most of the play happens in relative darkness, flashlights and other such props are used in a way that make the whole theatre feel like a part of the play, adding an extra layer of creepiness to the show. The soundscape, that starts even before the actual play does, is implemented in a very subtle yet effective manner, making more than one audience member turn and look around, wondering what might be lurking in the darkness. Together these three come together to create a truly well-balanced horror experience that will not be leaving your subconscious in a hurry.
Apart from the action on the stage, what amused me was the audience reactions all around me. I have never been to a show before where people quite honestly yelp with fear. Most entertaining of all was perhaps the rather tall and bulky gentleman sitting right in front of us. While my companion started his evening leaning to one side, trying to see the stage from behind this behemoth of a man, somewhere midway through he suddenly realised that he no longer needed to do that, as the said gentleman was now cowering over the side of his seat, with his hands over his eyes. When the lights went back on, he turned to his missus and quite loudly asked “Who’s fucking idea was this?”, but by the looks of the beaming smiles on both of their faces, I’m guessing the experience was nevertheless enjoyable one. And it certainly was for me! After walking out of the theatre I became keenly aware how much my cheeks ached, as I had been grinning like an idiot the whole way through. It tapped into everything I love about horror and being able to experience it as a live performance was simply marvellous. Ghost Stories is fantastically fun outing for anyone wanting a slightly different kind of theatrical experience and an absolute must see for any horror fans. I guarantee you will walk out with a smile.
Ghost Stories is currently touring the UK. For tour dates and theatres visit http://www.ghoststorieslive.co.uk/tour.html.