Halloween approaches, when “the world’s edge seeps and bleeds” according to Hilary Mantel, and so what better time to enjoy the tricks and treats on offer at the Duke of York’s Theatre? Ghost Stories is the scary love-child of Andy Nyman (Derren Brown’s mind-control collaborator) and Jeremy Dyson (one quarter of The League of Gentlemen); it’s in the tenebrous tradition of Victorian mentalism and magic, and comes with dire warnings attached for those of a nervous disposition – namely me.
Nyman himself plays anchorman to the entire proceedings, a certain professorial parapsychologist by the name of Philip Goodman. It’s a cunning ruse to have an arch-apologist for the rational curate the ghoulish tales for us in an analytical lecture format. He fluently makes the case for ghosts as manifestations of the troubled mind but then, some way into the show, glitches start to appear in his performance, and at one point he literally comes apart at the seams. Without giving too much away (we’re all sworn to secrecy) it turns out that the poor old Prof is protesting too much and is prey, as it were, to his own unresolved anxieties.
The three exemplars offered up by the corduroy-clad Nyman are great fun in an end of pier Ghost Train kind of way, though properly speaking it’s more of a slow train – and this is meant as a compliment. Doubtless the intention behind giving the actors the room to do very little for extended periods is to crank up the tension but personally I enjoyed watching the actors unhurriedly go about their mundane, gadget-based affairs: a night watchman ticks away time with internet porn and radio phone-ins; a city broker-type is permanently paired with his smartphone to conduct the adrenalized business of sustaining two Mercs and a mortgage as his domestic life unravels.
Technology is used here to disturbing effect: there is something innately disquieting about the recorded voice – all that spooky distortion – and sound designer Nick Manning makes ample use of speech variously garbled by phones, tape recorders, walkie-talkies, late-night radio. He also subjects us to an indeterminate background rumble as events unfold and jacks up the volume at moments of stress just to shred the nerves a little. Of course night-time is a precondition for things that go bump to really put the wind up the punters and James Farncombe shows a dastardly sleight of hand with the lighting or, more accurately, its absence. This, combined with ingenious misdirection and a highly mobile set, makes for some very nasty surprises indeed.
But it’s all rather jolly and a festive mood prevails in the stalls. There’s a knowing wit and a conscious hyperbole at work alongside the reveals that would seem to render them harmless as a joke-shop prank or a sophisticated version of peek-a-boo. In the absence of anything truly terrifying, one’s imagination is apt to recruit all the chance noises of the auditorium into the narrative: the coughs, rustles and exits are just as jangling as the calculated onstage frighteners.
As a confirmed horror dodger ever since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (it’s not so much the flying car that was creepy, you understand, as the child catcher), I was beginning to congratulate myself on emerging unscathed. Until, that is, the final stretch of the performance, when a new reality kicks in, which, like a double exposure, contains ghostly echoes from the old one. Our touchstone shatters and cracks open to reveal dark ambiguities.
Never mind what it says about us as decadents and voluptuaries that we seek to flirt with fear, and treat yourself to a good scare this Halloween: it’s a scream.