Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Written by Andy Nyman & Jeremy Dyson | Directed by Peter J. Snee
Season: July 10th – August 15th
Four years ago I read about the London stage show, Ghost Stories, a hugely successful production that used cinematic techniques to enhance the usual theatrical trappings. I hoped that one day the show would make its way down under, and finally it has.
In a nutshell, the show is very impressive, with a stunning production design and very clever transitions between scenes. The performances are top notch, and the overall atmosphere is wonderfully evoked. But the issue I have - and it’s a big one - is that the production arrives under the crushing weight of an enormous hype machine that proclaims the show to be a truly frightening experience. I jumped a couple of times, but I wasn't creeped out, and certainly not freaked out. But, after resolving myself from that disappointment, the more interesting elements of the show come to the fore.
The storytelling is intricate and layered, with many elements that are peripheral, almost hidden from view, just as a great movie has elements that fill the narrative and screen and often require careful attention, digging deeper, or repeat viewings. Ghost Stories relies on the building of its scenes, like a macabre jigsaw puzzle slowing coming together. What begins and appears to be quite self-conscious and contrived – a university lecture from Professor Goodman (Lynden Jones) on parapsychology and the innate power of ghost stories – steadily unfolds into an elaborate construction of multiple perspectives from various interviewees, their accounts being re-enacted on stage by a night watchman on duty (John Gregg), a teenager driving at night (Simon Rifkind), and a self-involved businessman (a darkly funny Ben Wood) awaiting his first child.
Ghost Stories is like a piece of English theatre filmed for late night television, a kind of haunted playhouse. It has a distinct old school feel, traditional scares, executed to great effect. There is no blood or gore, and violence is kept to a minimum. What it does is use certain techniques of subterfuge and distraction, which reigns in the audience’s focus, allowing the illusion maximum effect, in particular the superb use of “haze” (smoke machine), flashlight and headlights, and the brilliant, hypnotic effect of a rotating stage for scene transitions.
It’s a real shame the production comes with such publicity baggage. I’m sure if I had been lucky enough to see the show in its initial run, or come along to its current Sydney incarnation knowing absolutely nothing I would’ve had my socks knocked off. Instead, and admittedly it doesn’t help being a desensitised horror movie fan, I come into the show with very high expectations, and by the end of the 80-minute show my initial reaction was one of feeling underwhelmed. But, post-show, as the evening moved toward the witching hour and Ghost Stories' atmosphere and story elements swirled around in my head like a strange Lynchian dream my disappointment began to dissipate.
Ghost Stories is highly recommended for those wanting an evening out at the theatre that asks some interesting questions about what it is that attracts us to the Darkness, about the nature of spectres. It’s a show that features some superb theatrical twists on horror movie-style machinations - especially the use of suspense - but, for best effect, it’s best to go in with fright expectations kept in check.