Caution tape wraps itself around the elegant awnings of Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre, and the stage is marked with bold lettering: SAFETY CURTAIN. It brings to mind waiting in line for an amusement park ride, in an elaborately decorated area that is designed to evoke a certain theme or feeling.
The feeling here is one of fear – or at least it’s trying to be. Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s popular Ghost Stories, which premiered in London in 2010, finally makes its Australian debut with a local cast after being pushed back due to Covid. Directed by Richard Carroll (The Boomkak Panto, Calamity Jane, Once), the production promises thrills and spooks on stage, and issues a warning: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending.”
In reality, it’s about as scary as those gimmicky YouTube videos where a mangled face unexpectedly pops up and screams at you, or riding a family-friendly ghost train where employees sneak up to tap you on the shoulder – that is to say, reliant on shock more than anything else, and more than a little bit campy. And that’s coming from a reviewer who’s a self-confessed wuss and sleeps with the lights on if there’s even a slight hint of danger.
Without giving too much away – this production is reliant on suspense and mystery, and its creators request we not spoil the show – the play is delivered as a lecture by Prof Phillip Goodman (Steve Rodgers), who specialises in parapsychology. He presents three case studies of inexplicable paranormal activity, experienced by a nightwatchman (Jay Laga’aia), a teenager who’s nicked his dad’s car to go to a party (Darcy Brown) and a skeezy businessman who’s about to become a first-time dad (Nick Simpson-Deeks, who has one repeated – but very funny – visual gag). The subjects of these stories are interviewed by the professor, and then the audience is taken into the heart of each incident through re-enactments.
Goodman stresses that these types of ghostly encounters often have more to do with an individual’s guilt or conscience than the true presence of the supernatural. All the actors in this production are men, and there’s a strong undercurrent of the false bravado that comes from unexamined toxic masculinity. A Shyamalan-worthy twist fortifies both of these points even further, and small visual details become significant when the threads come together at the end. This is the kind of play that might reward a second (or third) viewing to properly appreciate the level of detail in the foreshadowing that’s peppered throughout.
Much of Ghost Stories takes place in the dark, amping up the fear factor – the stage is often pitch black, illuminated only by a torch or car headlights. There’s one brilliant moment where another sense is activated so subtly that it’s not noticeable until it’s everywhere. But the production leans too heavily on visual and aural shock to deliver the majority of its punches, and the result is often more comical than actually unsettling.
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The psychological twists are much more effective than the schlocky and obvious jump scares, with Rodgers’ dexterous, multifaceted performance a particular highlight. The lies we tell ourselves to stay sane – that’s the real harrowing, haunting stuff, and the show is at its most effective when it plays in this more mentally abstract area.
Despite Ghost Stories not being nearly as scary as it wants to be – or, really, at all – there’s still a lot of fun to be had here. Much of this comes from hearing and seeing the way other audience members react to what’s happening on stage – a surprised scream here, a theatrical gasp there. Because so much of the action happens in the dark, there’s a palpable feeling of tension in the room that taps into the communal nature of live performance, with everyone experiencing the same thing at once. It’s nice to experience that again, even if the source is a little hokey.
Ghost Stories runs at the Athenaeum theatre until 5 November. It opens at the Dunstan Playhouse in Adelaide on 7 December