Really, there’s not a lot I can say about this play. Not because I can’t think of anything to say, but because the audience is specifically asked not to spoil the experience for those who haven’t seen it yet.
It’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s all part of the fun, and apparently audience and critics alike have kept the secrets since the play’s opening at the Liverpool Playhouse (in Great Britain) during 2010.
Ghost Stories begins with a lecture on the paranormal – its history, its effects, its psychology – delivered by Professor Goodman (Lynden Jones). We all fear death and dying, he says, yet we “play a game with that fear” by entertainments that scare us … to death, in attempt to keep our fear at bay.
Because those sorts of entertainments include plays like Ghost Stories, we are immediately implicated in this strange “game”. Professor Goodman heightens the scare factor later on by revealing that all the events about which he will tell us about took place on Monday nights. And when did I see the production? Of course, it was on a Monday night.
But as Goodman clicks through his PowerPoint presentation, he speaks the language of reason, even as he launches three different stories gathered as part of his investigation into the field. The stories are recounted by three different characters: a nightwatchman (played by John Gregg), a teenage driver (Aleks Mikic) and a well-to-do and pompous stockbroker (Ben Wood).
The cast are all Australian, but director Peter J Snee is British, as are writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. The actors handle high emotions well, and all make a good stab at British accents, which gives the dialogue additional dimensions of class and regional difference.
The script is, in places, very talky. The Professor, for instance, has a lot to say. Lynden Jones’ energetic performance keeps us interested as he conveys the Professor’s enthusiasm for his topic – and perhaps also his pleasure at the sound of his own voice.
The production unfolds the narrative with a slow, deliberate pace that steadily builds our nervousness. It also balances Professor Goodman’s rational, academic thinking against the essential irrationality of the stories he introduces.
The tension between these two opposing states of mind is enhanced by suggestive atmospherics, and not surprisingly, writers Nyman and Dyson share an interest in stage magic and illusion. Thick haze shrouds the stage, and raking shafts of light emphasise the heaviness of the atmosphere. Brilliant sound design is similarly thick with menacing low-frequency buzz and sudden high pitched squawks (it’s just a walky-talky … isn’t it?).
The set makes excellent use of a stage revolve. ‘Solid’ warehouse walls turn inside out, and a car meanders down treelined country roads. Lighting designer Christopher Page, sound designer Lana Kristensen, production designer Phil Shearer and Natanya Standton-Shearer, on costumes and sets, have worked closely together to produce a strong and striking environment. (An attempt to introduce smell wasn’t effective on opening night, but I love the idea.)
The play’s conclusion disappointed me, because it explained too much. That’s all I’ll say. I notice, though, an unusual offer on the back of the program: an invitation to come back and watch the show again, this time knowing how it turns out.
I don’t think I’ll take them up on the offer, but I would recommend others to put themselves in the accomplished hands of these illusionists. It’s really great fun to play this game with fear.