Review: Ghost Stories

The Caretaker in Ghost Stories. Photograph: Chris Payne
11 Mar 2020 @ 12.19 pm
| News

Is there a more York thing to do than go see Ghost Stories?

Ghost Stories
  • Grand Opera House, York
  • Till Sat 14 March
  • £13-£55
  • More details

This is, after all, a city which claims to be the most haunted in Europe, where ghost walkers bump into one other in the night, and where you can get your own hand-painted spectre from a spooky Shambles shop.

So our first chance to see the acclaimed international hit by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman seems long overdue.

The Grand Opera House has its own ghost, natch – but what they made of last night’s performance is anyone’s guess. To be honest if a glowing phantasm had manifested itself at the back of the stalls, no one would have noticed. All wide eyes were locked onto the stage, and genuine ethereal wailing would have been drowned out by the audience screams.

Immersive experience

So, what is Ghost Stories? It is a one act play designed to scare the willies out of theatregoers. Beyond that we can’t say much as, well, spoilers. But it is OK to reveal that it involves a professor’s lecture and the ghostly experiences of three of his research subjects.

This is described as an immersive experience, and the immersion begins as you enter the theatre, with areas cordoned off with tape and lamps strung around the auditorium that abruptly flicker and crackle.

The production, directed by Dyson, Nyman and Sean Holmes, is paced beautifully to ratchet up the tension. Parapsychologist Professor Goodman (Joshua Higgott) begins by making clear his scepticism of the supernatural. And his belief in rational explanations remains rock solid for… most of the evening.

Then we are plunged into a windowless world for the first of the ghost stories, which builds up the creepiness to knuckle-gnawing levels before – yikes!

The performances are terrific. Paul Hawkyard, Gus Gordon and Richard Sutton are all utterly believably as the normal folk succumbing to paranormal experiences – we were particularly taken by Sutton’s twitchy fund manager Mike Priddle. And Higgott’s scoffing prof, dropping only occasional creepy hints of what is to come, holds it all together.

Oh, and this being a show partly from a League of Gentlemen’s pen, there are a lot of laughs too.

Special effects

The staging is the other star. Brilliant use of audio, from rumbling unease to cataclysmic crescendo, combines with lighting – or lack of it – to build the scariness (well done to sound designer Nick Manning and lighting designer James Farncombe). Repeatedly dazzled by torchlight and car headlamps we are left straining our eyes to see if there are any shapes lurking in the darkness.

And some of the special effects are, well, the work of the devil. Or Scott Penrose as he is credited in the programme.

The audience on opening night didn’t always help to build the atmosphere. One third of them seemed unable to suppress a hacking cough – perhaps the most terrifying sound of all given the circumstances. And a party behind us were so overwhelmed by pre-loaded hysteria that every sudden movement was accompanied by ear-melting shrieks and ‘oh-my-gods’, which does rip through the skin-taut tension somewhat.

But that’s people for you.

This is a terrific piece of entertainment with real jump scares and a genuinely gasp-inducing twist in the dying seconds. My daughter, at 16 a veteran of stage spectres, declared it ‘much scarier than Woman In Black’.

Do go – unless you are of a nervous disposition with an underlying heart condition. In which case, don’t go. Seriously. Don’t.