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I ain't 'fraid of no ghosts
Ghost Stories (London)
Member Name: hogsflesh
Ghost Stories (London)
Date: 08/07/10, updated on 08/07/10 (510 review reads)
Advantages: Fun and extremely well executed
Disadvantages: Not too scary, probably too expensive
The play notionally takes the form of a lecture by a sceptical parapsychology professor. He sets out to convince us that ghosts don't exist by telling us three supposedly real-life ghost stories he's found in the course of his research. These form the meat of the play: three short, spooky encounters, effectively one-man shows in which respectively a nightwatchman at a storage facility; a student driving alone at night through a forest; and an arrogant City type waiting for news of his hospitalised wife are all faced with profoundly unsettling stuff. Naturally enough, the lecturer himself isn't quite what he seems.
This play is all done very well. The lecturer projects slides onto a safety curtain, behind which the set for each story is slid noiselessly into place, and you can't really fault this, technically. The sets for each story are very good (the car is perhaps a bit weak, but it has to be set up in a certain way for all the various effects to work properly). It makes use of light and - especially - darkness extremely well, with characters shining lights out into the audience at key moments presumably to stop us noticing what's being set up in the darkness behind them. It even infuses the theatre with a smell of bleach at one point.
But ultimately this is judged on whether it's scary. I personally wasn't frightened, but I don't hold that against it. The first 20 minutes or so builds our unease very well. There's a particularly good freaky photo. The nightwatchman's story goes on for ages before anything nasty happens, just slowly building the suspense. A bit where he's doing his rounds, shining a torch around an otherwise pitch black stage and auditorium, while the faint strains of Anthony Newley's 'Why' can be heard in the background is really unsettling. The anticipation for the big scares that seemed sure to come was palpable. But sadly, as with almost all horror really, the suspense generated is far more substantial than the payoff. The spectral manifestations are well done (with one hilarious exception) but are just slightly banal after all the anticipation. There's also an over-reliance on loud noises to make us jump.
It's a very clever story; perhaps a bit too clever. Everything ties in rather too tidily at the end, and there are clues scattered throughout as to what's going on (some of which are very obviously clues). The audience is asked not to give the ending away, and I wouldn't dream of doing so, but this feels like slightly less than the sum of its parts. The inevitable comparison is with the stage version of Susan Hill's Woman in Black, and it borrows from that a bit in its self-conscious theatricality and in various plot elements. As a well-versed horror fan I could spot where a lot of the ideas in this come from (one is a very obvious steal from an episode of 70s Dr Who, which was re-stolen by the latest series of Who). That's not really a criticism, though, as something like this probably has pastiche written into its remit, and I guess most people won't notice. Top marks to them for using the music from Deep Red as an opening and closing theme, as well.
I don't think I'm necessarily the target audience. Most of the people there were younger than me, and most of them were having a fine old time screaming away and then laughing at themselves for screaming. The people in front of me had got themselves so scared they were pointing in terror at bits of the stage where nothing at all was happening, convinced they were seeing phantoms that weren't there. They obviously got good value for money, and it's a great, fun, ghost train ride of a play, especially if there's a good, giggly, responsive audience. Even a cynical, old-but-still-handsome know-it-all like me has to admit to being impressed with the effect this had on da kids.
All four characters are really well acted. Especial praise goes to co-author Nyman as the professor, although he perhaps makes the transition from likeable, engaging teacher to arrogant Dawkins-style sceptic a bit suddenly. The script is very good, and it knows when to throw in a bit of humour in the middle of the scariest bits, to keep the laughs coming along with the screams. This might not keep you awake at night, but that's not its purpose. It's a fun romp, and if it doesn't completely draw you in, it should at least leave you impressed with how flawlessly executed it is.
It's recommended for over 15s only, although inevitably the warnings on the poster about how scary it is are a bit OTT. The play has only just opened at the Duke of York's theatre on St Martin's Lane (just round the corner from Leicester Square Tube). This is one of the less ghastly West End theatres, and also one of the smaller ones. This is important, as this is quite an intimate play that relies on people not being too far away from the stage. The last huge success that transferred from the Lyric Hammersmith to the West End was Shockheaded Peter, which felt a bit lost in a larger theatre.
The problem with the new setting is the price. The cheapest tickets appear to be £22.50, and they go up to £40+. This is best seen by students and people in their early 20s - people who might well be put off by the price tag. I'm sure most audiences will enjoy it, but the people it seems most appropriate for will probably be priced out. Still, I guess that's the trade-off. Anyway, if you have that kind of disposable income this is well worth seeing.
Summary: An enjoyable bit of horror theatre
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