REVIEW: Ghost Stories, presented by Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, scaring all and sundry at Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york
IT is not every play day that the writers send out a polite request to reviewers, and normally it would be a red rag to that most bullish of breeds: the hacked-off hack.
However, the seriously bearded duo of Andy Nyman and Leeds-born Jeremy Dyson, he of the deeply, madly, darkly twisted League of Gentlemen, do have a point.
Ghost Stories has been around for a decade now, going global and being transformed into a film too, but all the while “it has meant so much to us that critics the world over have kept [secret] the plot and secrets of our show when writing about it,” they say.
“We appreciate it makes life a little trickier for you by not divulging [the] plot, but because of your help, Ghost Stories remains a rare thing: a modern experience you have to see ‘spoiler-free’.”
Spoiler alert: there will be no spoiler alerts in this review to blow the cover of their audacious spooky conceit. What your reviewer can reveal, however, dear reader, is that he first saw this immersive fright-fest at the Ambassadors Theatre – a typically compressed, crowded, everyone-close-to-the-stage, venerable West End locale – only last autumn, and frankly it was just as joyously, seat-of-the-pants, phew, glad-to-have-got-through-that scary, second time around at the Grand Opera House on Tuesday night.
Even when knowing what was coming next. Much like returning to a favourite fairground ghost train or high-speed ride. In fact, that even added to the experience, and apparently others share that view, gleefully inviting the uninitiated to join them to break their Ghost Stories virginity. Just do as Andy and Jeremy say: tell them nothing, except maybe pass on this message: “We hope you have a great night and maybe even scream a bit.”
A bit? In reality, there is as much laughter as screaming in response to the brilliantly executed storytelling, stocked with its 15-rated “moments of extreme shock and tension”. “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending,” says the programme cover, which is a tad late for a warning and amounts to more of a dare.
Do note this, however. Anyone who leaves once the ghosts have started their work for the night is not allowed back in, and nor is there an interval. So, the strongest advice is to think very seriously of heading to the loo beforehand, should that fear of a discomfort break be more likely to make you nervous.
Unlike Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman In Black, Ghost Stories is not one ghost story but three ghost stories, wrapped inside an over-arching, far darker psycho-drama that begins with Joshua Higgott’s Professor Phillip Goodman, a parapsychologist in obligatory brown corduroy, delivering a lecture, glass of water and dry wit at hand.
In a theatre with its own ghost, opposite the York Dungeon tourist attraction with its love of gory history, and in “Europe’s most haunted city” with a ghost tour around every corner, even a ghost bus ride and a York Ghost Merchants shop to counter the spread of Pottervirus in Shambles, Goodman should be feeling very much at home as he guides us through the history of our fascination with ghosts and expert ghost analysis of the past. So far, so para-normal.
All of this is a way to trap us into a false sense of security/strap us in for the very bumpy ghost rides ahead, each more alarming than the last, as lecture and lecturer seep in and out of each suspenseful story.
Without giving anything away, these involve a seen-it-all-before night-watchman in a depository (Paul Hawkyard); a novice motorist in a car at night in a murky wood (Gus Gordon) and a flashy father-to-be in a nursery (Richard Sutton, still as outstanding as he was in the London run). What happens next? Relax, Andy, relax Jeremy, my bitten lips are now sealed.
Except to say, writer-directors Nyman and Dyson and fellow director Sean Holmes work their ghostly magic deliciously devilishly in tandem with Jon Bauser, a sleight-of-hand magician of a designer, far outwitting Hammer Horror.
James Farncombe’s lighting adds heart-stopping menace to the juddering frights, hand-held torches and all; Nick Manning’s disturbing, disorientating, jagged, sometimes deafening sound design assaults you from all sides, and Scott Penrose’s climactic special effects are terrifically terrifying.
Do keep what happens secret, but don’t keep the show secret. It deserves big houses, being all the better, the more who share the experience, even amid the worrisome shadow of Coronavirus.
”Sweet dreams, Andy and Jeremy,” say the ghost-story weavers as they sign off their letter to the fourth estate, politely teasing to the last.
Sweet dreams? Lovers of gripping theatre, devotees of the paranormal world, your nightmare would be to miss Ghost Stories, especially on Friday the 13th. You won’t rest until tickets are safe and secure in your hand.