The Everyman and Playhouse have enjoyed fine runs of form recently, as can probably be gleaned from my glowing reviews over the last few months.
But Ghost Stories is a total change of pace, tone… well, everything to the last few productions.
Scripted by Andy Nyman, who helps Derren Brown out with his shows, and Jeremy Dyson, the silent member of the League of Gentlemen, Ghost Stories is a new take on an old horror standard – the short-story anthology.
Horror is a genre that lends itself perfectly to the short story, a form that is perfect for the surprise denouement, the ironic comeuppance, the rug pulled from under the feet.
Whether in the classic short stories of Saki, O Henry or Edgar Allen Poe; the mid-20th century sci-fi stylings of Bradbury, Ellison or Heinlein; TV series such as Tales of the Unexpected or Tales From the Crypt; or 70s horror anthologies like Asylum or Vault of Horror, there’s a long-time association between form and genre. The two fit together like a teenage babysitter and a call from the telephone upstairs.
Ghost Stories observes these time-honoured rules in the way that those Hammer anthologies would: a series of chilling tales bound together by an overarching narrative, in this case a lecture by the paranormal sceptic Professor Phil Goodman, played by Nyman.
Somewhat predictably, there’s more to it than that, but the authors have begged that no-one reveal the secrets of Ghost Stories, and it’s churlish to spoil the fun for others.
Suffice it to say that there are three self-contained stories that should come with spotter’s badges for horror buffs. Silent Hill seems to have provided most inspiration for a lot of the visuals, audio beds, sound stings and general creeping sense of dread that pervades the action on set and breaks through the fourth wall, infecting the theatre itself.
But the fact that Ghost Stories does not hide its many influences is not to its detriment. Although anyone well versed in horror films or literature will see twists and turns coming – they’re handily sign-posted after all – there are genuine stabs of fright, the creeping-flesh slow burn of dread and a genuine style and verve to it all.
It is, without exception, well-executed in terms of script, acting, set design, audio and visual FX. Dyson’s hand in the dark humour and direction of the narrative will be evident to anyone who’s read any of his short stories, while the little signifiers littered throughout the script will be recognised from Nyman’s work on Derren Brown’s shows.
I think the health warnings that accompany the promotional literature may be apt, there are genuine scares and a well-developed sense of the uncanny throughout.
Clearly this was too much for a good chunk of the audience who nervously laughed while, astonishingly, a minority openly talked throughout the play. Presumably the alternative of sitting in silence, the spell unbroken, was too uncomfortable; either way I thought it exceptionally bad behaviour.
It’s a symptom of hard it must be to create something genuinely chilling on stage, where audiences are unwilling to allow themselves to be too disturbed by a play. A single laugh or audible stage whisper can take an audience straight out of their suspension of disbelief.
But Ghost Stories maintained a powerful hold on me throughout. It felt like the product of two people who understood the demands, quirks and rigours of the medium perfectly – and it showed in a brilliantly entertaining, and genuinely unsettling, experience.