The West End already gives plenty of reasons for blind terror, and that's not just the sight of the price list at the box office - up to £152 for The Book of Mormon, for instance. What with that, the imminent arrival of a real-life actor impersonating Simon Cowell in a West End musical and such recent events as a theatre ceiling caving in during a storm on Shaftesbury Avenue, why put yourself in harm's way? But of course people love to be terrified, as long as they're (relatively) safe.
And Ghost Stories is a calculated, sometimes clever exercise in arousing theatrical fear. Originally premiered in Liverpool before transferring to London's Lyric Hammersmith in 2010 and then the West End's Duke of York's, it is now back in town. This time it has come to that grimy hellhole of a theatre called the Arts, and with the venue resembling a crime scene with yards of police tape criss-crossing the auditorium, it actually feels like a site- specific show now.
As co-writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, who also co-direct it with the Lyric Hammersmith's Sean Holmes, say in a programme note, "In the subterranean intimacy of the Arts Theatre you really have nowhere to hide." The grimness and discomfort of the auditorium matches the dark stories you're about to be told; the theatre even smells a bit, too. Maybe that's the ectoplasm in the air - or maybe it is just people wetting themselves with fright.
The publicity also warns of "moments of extreme shock and tension", and adds: "We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending." That may be a come-on too far; as someone who routinely has to watch horror movies through the slits between my fingers on hands that are covering my face, I didn't have to do that. But I also did jump out of my seat - more than once, and not just because of the dodgy springs of the Arts Theatre's antique seats. Nick Manning's piercingly sinister soundtrack may over-signal where the frights occur, but its three stories of ghostly visitations are given an atmospheric intensity in the sparse, smart changing perspectives of Jon Bausor's designs and James Farncombe's stark lighting. The programme and a post-show announcement implores us to keep the secrets of Ghost Stories, and I don't intend to spoil the surprises for you of a short but hardly sweet evening of visceral thrills.
Paul Kemp, Philip Whitchurch, Chris Levens and Gary Shelford act it with an earnest sincerity that makes the incredible seem almost credible.
"If this triple-helping of spookiness doesn't scare you, you must have nerves of steel."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
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