I’m not easily scared, but I was genuinely nervous to experience this “sensory encounter” of Ghost Stories. Reviews told of its “blood-curdling” jump scares and crafty plot-line, and I thought maybe I’d finally found a clever psychological horror that would scare me out of my wits. Before the play begins, the audience is plunged into a menacing darkness, and an ominous voice warns that entrees under 15s are unadvised, and that those of a nervous disposition attend at their own risk – that was probably the scariest part.
The Lyric Hammersmith production of Ghost Stories has been spooking audiences for ten years and inspired the 2017 film adaptation, starring writer Andy Nyman. It’s got credibility in abundance, and everyone else at The Lowry seemed enthralled by mysterious parapsychologist lecturer Philip Goodman and his tales of unearthly goings-on. I was intrigued by him, and when he asked for an audience show of hands about different perceptions of the paranormal, I really thought this would be a story that made me think. In the end, it just made me think about why there are so few horror stories that can master timely jump-scares and a convincing story-line without accidentally falling into the domain of cringe.
Professor Goodman, portrayed by Joshua Higgott, initially contemplates with the audience the interplay between our own consciences and what really lies “beyond”, showing images of various oddities open to ambiguous interpretation to aptly remind us just how much your head can play tricks on you.
The mood is set as he delves into his first ghost story – a friend of a friend, Tony Matthews’ (Paul Hawkyard) paranormal experience of a doll (not at all predictable) embodying his comatose daughter. There was only one moment of real suspense in this mini-story, and the climax was hardly unexpectedly timed, but it left me in high hopes for a chilling and mind-melding plot-line. I won’t give too much away as we were all asked to “keep the secrets”, but two separate stories follow, starring Gus Gordan as hopeful teenager Simon Rifkind and Richard Sutton as the rich and staggeringly pompous Mike Priddle. The actors were a credit to the characters, bringing them to life with a likeable authenticity, wit, and often, humour.
The set was used brilliantly, transforming in seconds into a forest, a nursery, a hospital room, and an eerie drain system that looked like it could have devoured the whole audience. The sound effects complemented the moments of heightened tension impressively – the audience reactions were plenty proof of just how effective they were at instilling a feeling of genuine terror. It was quite funny to watch strangers laugh with each other in embarrassment at how much they’d just jumped and screamed, so it’s no surprise that only audience reactions are recorded/photographed, and not the production itself.
Somewhere between the three stories, host Professor Goodman starts to lose face, showing signs of demonic possession, and the three stories are, thankfully, finally tied together in a dreadful showdown. I was confused at first, but after having time to reflect, it’s clear that the premise of the story is that the paranormal feeds on feelings of guilt and can prey on even the most innocent, unsuspecting of people.
The plot twist is good and makes overall sense, but I just couldn’t take it seriously – the events leading up to the finale were hyperbolic, and I was struggling to establish clear links amongst all the frantic action. The one necessity for me to actually enjoy a horror is a believable, candid storyline, which is what I regrettably feel that Ghost Stories was devoid of, relying on chaos and momentary, transient fear instead of proper fear that leaves you paranoid all night. For me, I felt like I was watching Most Haunted live on stage – I was kind of scared but I also kind of wanted to laugh.
That said, I am a harsh critic in the horror department, and everyone else seemed to thoroughly enjoy this spooky sensation. If you want a bit of a light-hearted scare that’s going to leave you shook up a couple of times, but that doesn’t really warrant the emissions of leaving the big light on all night, Ghost Stories has just that.
Ghost Stories continues its UK tour throughout 2020.