Ghost Stories, Lyric Hammersmith, London
Tuesday 09 March 2010
It's not often that the standard pre-show announcement to switch off mobile phones and resist using cameras causes the audience to jump out of its collective skin. But Ghost Stories takes care to put the frighteners on the public well before the lights go down. The publicity blatantly advises people of a nervous disposition or women in the later stages of pregnancy to stay away. One senses that there might be a spoof element to this, as well as a canny reverse come-on, but one can't be sure. This critic – who even screamed as a child during the movie of The Sound of Music on discovering that that nice blonde messenger-boy had become a Nazi – toyed with the idea of securing a sick note from his doctors. I'm glad that I didn't because Ghost Stories, though lethally well-paced in its visceral scariness, proved to be more a fascinating think-piece – as technically dazzling as it is morally teasing – than the stuff of ongoing future nightmares.
Written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman and directed by this pair with Sean Holmes, the superbly acted show is presented in the format of an illustrated lecture by a professor of parapsychology who whips us through a brief history of the ghost story and its relationship with the human need to impose meaning on the inexplicable. It would be unfair to divulge any of the special effects or the major plot twist, but I can reveal that the revivified cases of supernatural haunting that the Professor investigates here hinge on the guilty feelings of the living and I will also gesture towards the fact that tables are eventually turned – which involves leitmotifs of plot and character returning with a very eerie bedside manner...
I "enjoyed" every creepy minute; I applaud the Lyric for veering so vividly off the beaten track; and I greatly admire the skill with which the comically mundane is played off against the macabre. But I also feel that the piece has not quite got a grip on its legitimately divided aims – it's as if the desire to recreate the thrills of the fairground Ghost Train has got entangled with the wish to investigate the relationship between the moral rights of ghosts and the guilt of those they haunt. With regard to the latter, there is nothing remotely as effective in this show as the banquet in Macbeth that is twice gate-crashed by the vengeful ghost of Banquo. And that's partly because there is nothing as complex here as Macbeth's mind.
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