When an email from The Alexandra Theatre drops into your inbox with an explicit warning – “Please be advised that Ghost Stories contains moments of extreme shock and tension.We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending” – then I know this is a Press Night that Pa Lee is going to want to accompany me to.
Back in 2010, Ghost Stories made its stage debut, and was produced as a film in 2017. The show returned to the stage early last year, and and after a spell in London’s West End the show is embarking on a UK tour for the first time. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, the show prides itself on being utterly terrifying. Hence the pre-show warning. And therefore you won’t find any spoilers in this review.
The auditorium has been dressed with industrial lights, crime tape and chalk-written numbers scrawled on the walls. The audience bubble with trepidation. After all, we’ve all been told to expect to be scared out of our wits. Which almost dampens the tension straight away. “Most frightening night of my life?” I’m cynical. But 80 interval-free minutes later I do leave the theatre with a palpable relief that it’s all over.
It’s a production that needs to be experienced. A fascinating set of apparently unrelated vignettes are loosely threaded together by parapsychologist Professor Phillip Goodman (Joshua Higgott). He opens the show, delivering a light-hearted lecture to us, the audience, on the utter ridiculousness of believing in ghosts. Higgott is excellent as Goodman, cynical and logical but charismatic, trying to debunk the myths of the supernatural. Goodman’s lecture blends into the terrifying tales, building the suspense with each story more nightmarish than the last. What did happen to grumpy, guilt-wracked security guard Tony (Paul Hawkyard)? Or to wayward teenager Simon (Gus Gordon). And what about ruthless city financier Mike (Richard Sutton)?
In order to avoid plot spoilers, it’s much easier to talk about the creative team behind the show. The script is cleverly constructed, and the heavy tension is briefly lightened by moments of humour. Nick Manning’s eerie sound design is deeply unsettling and marries well with the atmospheric lighting design by James Farncombe. The special effects by Scott Penrose are simple and well produced on a constantly revolving and transforming set designed by Jon Bausor.
Is it really that scary? In the moment, maybe. There are enough jump scares to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. The creatives toy with perspective, with things happening just on the periphery of vision, and sounds that seem to come from behind you. Relieved nervous giggles follow each collective scream. But you’re always aware that it’s a bit of fun. Excellent stagecraft, but you’re never truly in any danger. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it won’t have me checking under the bed or double locking the doors. I slept soundly. But sensitive souls should definitely proceed with caution.