Ghost Stories is back in the West End for Halloween. It’s been a huge success since it first appeared in 2010. Paying homage to a format seen in some classic British films it contains three separate stories, introduced by Professor Goodman (Simon Lipkin).
The professor tells us people like to see patterns to make sense of the unexplained. The episodic format gives a sense of structure to which we cling in the face of the genuinely uneasy atmosphere the show creates. Your brain is messed with from the moment you enter the building. Weird and creepy sounds are played through the PA system even in the bar. Inside the auditorium the house lights are not working, being replaced by strings of work lamps whose caged bulbs flicker erratically. Apparently random numbers are scrawled on the walls.
The first story, concerning a night watchman at an almost empty warehouse, sets the style. The setting is obviously spooky and the usual creepy elements are duly present: mysteriously unexpected sounds in the dark, odd voices on the radio and a weird child/doll. Children are a sure-fire ingredient in these kinds of tales if you want to be extra sure of chilling spines. I still think the scariest of the modern Dr Who stories was the one with the child in the gas mask asking, ‘Are you my mummy?’
The suspense and tension in the theatre build nicely. Partly that’s because of the expectations on us to be scared. This is not a subtle evening. The stories are very much of the ‘scary tales round the camp fire’ variety – those told with a torch shining up your face for added impact. And that torch device is actually deployed unashamedly here. The shape of the stories in each case is also similar, with each one building to a shock moment designed to make you jump – which it can’t help but succeed in doing. That’s because theatres are easy places to make dark – just turn out the lights. Then make a sudden loud noise in the silence (very loud in this case) and behold; the audience jumps. But my instinctive reaction to being made to jump, when all the authors have done is effectively shout ‘boo!’, is to feel manipulated and determined not to be caught out again.
The best ghost stories have more going on than this, though, and this is true of Ghost Stories itself. It’s in part an exploration of guilt and how our mind copes (or fails to cope) with it. There are hints of what’s really going on in the professor’s lecture. And the fact it’s written by Jeremy Dyson and Any Nyman is enough to tell us to be alert to another layer beyond the story within a story which the professor is telling us. I won’t say more because it’s clearly best to enjoy this sort of experience without spoilers.
Finally I must say that the skills of cast, stage crew, sound and lighting are deployed with brilliant timing to deliver the stand-out thrills. However immune you consider yourself to this sort of thing I defy you not to be, at least for a second, genuinely scared!
Ghost Stories is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 January 2020.