Oodles of chills have landed at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre this week, with the arrival of Ghost Stories. 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the play, whose journey has taken it around the world and adapted into a film. Finally seeing it in its original form, it's easy to see why, as it is a marvellous mix of humour, stage magic, and, of course, horror.
A triptych of stories are told, under the framing of a lecture from Professor Goodman, who specialises in Parapsychology. Each tale is presented as an un-explainable phenomenon: there's Tony, who finds his night watch role interrupted; Simon and his unfortunately-timed broken down car; and Mike, a businessman and father-to-be dealing with something unnatural. All the while, there is a feeling creeping in that maybe these ghost stories mean something more.
Ghost Stories benefits from a strong cast, particularly Joshua Higgott whose professor makes a likeable through line for the piece. The final act works so well because Higgott judges just the right level to play it. The rest of the ensemble perform their parts well. Paul Hawkyard brings a rough charm and a subtle empathy to Tony, whilst Gus Gordon has an effective nervous energy that propels his story forward. Richard Sutton's Mike initially feels a grotesque caricature but soon morphs into one of the most engaging parts of Ghost Stories' puzzle, proving key to the play's climax.
The show is the brainchild of Jeremy Dyson (the unseen member of The League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman (Derren Brown's writing partner) and much of its DNA comes from them. The night is full of laughs, with Dyson and Nyman cleverly using humour to disarm us. It makes the horrors that come more potent as, for the most part, the audience is having a rollicking time. As a piece of stagecraft Ghost Stories is impressive, with a set design that evolves to meet each story. There are also several moments of stage magic that are wonderful pieces of trickery. But these flashier moments are enhanced by subtle technical elements that play to all of the senses (shifts in lighting, a soft unnerving soundscape and even odours pumped into the auditorium). Ghost Stories was an enjoyable film but really is at its best on stage.
This is a tricky piece to review, as so much of its impact lies in the surprises it has in store. For much of the time it feels a delightfully creaky throwback, an appreciation of the horror genre from a pair of fans. And yet in its final act it morphs, gaining a resonance and impact that lingers long after. The very last moments haunted me and left me awake at night. Baked into the production are fascinating insights into racism and masculinity, and it all works because there is something beyond the exemplary stage magic. If you dare to spend an hour and a half in Ghost Stories' company (and it is a satisfyingly brisk show) you will be rewarded by something that just about reaches genre greatness.