Thursday, 10 October 2019

REVIEW: Ghost Stories at the Ambassadors

Ghost Stories takes care to manipulate you from the moment you step into the theatre. Ghostly sounds are piped into the bar so the pressure is being applied even here. Once in the auditorium it appears as though there is some sort of building work going on. None of the house lights are working, the space instead being illuminated by strings of caged bulbs, flickering ominously.

The evening begins with the rather sudden arrival of Professor Goodman (Simon Lipkin) who starts a lecture about his study of people who claim to have had super natural experiences. It’s all getting rather dull (“Stay with me,” he urges at one point). Then we are taken into the next level of the story as the first of the people he has interviewed about their experiences is brought to life on stage. So we have an episodic approach, with the Professor as our anchor. As he says, people like to look for patterns. And it seems there is one emerging here, with the professor telling us about a case, then the curtain lifting to reveal that story in front of us. And he tells us there will be three such stories. But we also know enough about writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman to suspect that there will be more to this pattern than there appears.

On arrival reviewers are asked not to reveal things about what happens which will spoil it for others. It soon becomes clear why, as the sudden shock, sometimes combined with loud sound effects, is used several times. Clearly this only works if you’re not expecting it. It is, of course, relatively easy to frighten an audience in this way. It’s the theatrical equivalent of shouting ‘boo!’ and I’m not sure if Ghost Stories doesn’t rely on it a little too much. But for the most part there is a neat balance between the use of this basic technique with other,
more subtle, elements. For instance, I noticed the distinctive smell of disinfectant just before a character mentioned hospital cleaning in their story. That was unnerving! If the creators are going to that much trouble to mess with your head, you need to be very worried!

The success of the show depends in large part on the credibility of the performers. We have to believe these are normal people going about mundane, ordinary things. It’s the contrast between this ordinariness and their possibly super natural encounters that makes the thrills more thrilling and the scares more scary. And it relies on some nifty timing by all involved – actors, stage crew, sound and lighting - to deliver the maximum thrill when the climactic moment inevitably comes. 

One of the lessons we learn from the professor, in his analysis of each story, is that things are not always what they seem; perhaps the events only happened in the protagonists’ own heads. But Ghost Stories leaves you worried that things might indeed be exactly what they seem!

Review by John Charles 

Rating: ★★★★ 

Seat: Circle A20 | Price of ticket: £65
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