West End Thrills: Ghost Stories

Lest you think me narrow minded for relying solely on films to get my horror kicks, I thought I would share with you a recent theatre-going experience I had in London’s West End. I’m not talking about Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black, which I’ve also seen and whose perennial popularity I can confirm is entirely deserved. No, I’m talking about a smaller, more recent original production on at The Arts Theatre until the get-your-keister-to Leicester-Square-before-it’s-gone 15th of March: Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories was written by Jeremy Dyson, a co-creator of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen who went on to adapt Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for the West End, and Andy Nyman, an actor and magician with roles in Severance and Death at a Funeral. It premiered in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse, and has since terrified audiences in London and even (briefly) in Toronto. There have been whispers about the play extending its reach to the USA this year.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Ghost Stories, you’ve heard the gimmicky, almost William Castle-esque taglines: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending”. The play also takes a couple of leaves out of Hitchcock’s book by forbidding (re)admittance to the theatre after curtain time and imploring patrons after curtain call to “Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories”. I will honour this request by attempting to reveal as little as possible about the play while still communicating why I think you should go see it.

Walking into the theatre, you feel the hum of nervous anticipation emanating from your fellow patrons. The unnerving cocktail of ambient sounds – water droplets, echoes, rumblings – cuts through banal chitchat. The theatre is “decorated” with black bin bags and yellow caution tape, which suggests that the performance to follow will be similarly frugal and minimalist. Never fear (at least, not about that); the story starts off slowly before revealing its technically impressive, expressionist set pieces, all superbly lit to maximise tension. The sound crackles, whistles, booms and screeches. Packed into tight seats, you feel trapped in an immersive environment of dread. Even your sense of smell is eventually turned against you.

Overall, Ghost Stories can best be described as an experience: a ride, almost. The quality of the acting and direction surpasses the admittedly thin script. None of the three stories is particularly groundbreaking and each relies on ready-made archetypes (and the fantastic atmosphere mentioned above) to create suspense quickly. This means you probably won’t spend the next few days thinking about the stories, and you definitely won’t be saving them for your next campfire.  Genre fans, in particular, may find this disappointing. That’s not to say that the script is flawed, merely that narrative novelty is not its raison d’être. The surprise ending I’ve been asked to protect is, well, surprising, but it’s not what you will remember about Ghost Stories. You’ll remember the sense of intimacy created both on stage and within the stalls and circle, thanks to the care and attention to detail that go into one sumptuous, satisfying, 80-minute feast.

“Thank you and sleep well.”