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You have to admire the marketing of the new hit stage show GHOST STORIES. Anyone coming into the show is met with a warning: “Please be advised that GHOST STORIES has scenes of extreme shock and tension. The show is unsuitable for anyone under the age of 14. We strongly advise anyone with a nervous disposition to think twice before attending.” A great bit of hype, but thankfully the show lives up to it, and in ways you wouldn’t expect.
In early 2010, GHOST STORIES opened at the Liverpool Playhouse and then quickly moved to the London West End stage, where it has been selling out consistently at the Duke of York Theatre ever since. The play moved to Toronto and opened at the Panasonic theater this month, again to sold-out crowds.
GHOST STORIES’ promotion has been clever, but intentionally vague as well. No storyline synopsis has been released, and the promotion has been focused heavily on videotaped audience reactions to what transpires on stage—much like was done for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY—with the tagline “Keep telling yourself it’s only a show” (taking a page from the original marketing of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).
The people behind GHOST STORIES ask you not to give away the show’s secrets, so this review will try to give you the breakdown without revealing anything important. GHOST STORIES is told to us under the guise of a college lecture by Professor Philip Goodman (Jason Blicker) on the history of ghosts. He tells us three stories he has documented, and they are presented as flashbacks by a night watchman (Jack Langedijk), a teenager (David Reale) and a businessman (Darrin Baker). The play breaks away from its anthology structure in way that is quite clever, with a neat twist that I won’t give away.
So the big question is…is it scary? Well, being scared is like beauty; it’s a subjective experience. Some people think Cindy Crawford is the hottest thing ever, and I personally would wish she just got that damn mole removed. And while hardcore FANGORIA readers probably won’t be jumping out of their seats at GHOST STORIES, there is good chance their dates will. Judging from the screams around me, the play really did shake up a few people. It actually did get me at a few moments—and being that I’m a big major fan, that’s saying a lot.
Getting scared at GHOST STORIES isn’t the only reason to go, though. Despite being deceptively simple, it actually makes a really interesting statement on the nature of fear, what makes us afraid of something and how it is all connected to our own sense of guilt. The play is also really funny. There is laughter throughout the performance—not just from the funny bits written into the play, but you find yourself laughing to relieve the tension at times. The scares are placed quite few and far between to build the tension up, and the crowd I suspect was breaking into laughter to assuage their nerves.
GHOST STORIES is very much a throwback, made by two guys - Brits Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson- (Nyman and this writer pictured right) who clearly love old-school horror. The play looks very much like a page out of the old EC Comics. The frights are interactive, and it’s all right out of director/showman William Castle’s playbook to mess with the audience. As modern as the show is, the storytelling techniques have very much of a “sitting around the campfire with a flashlight” feel to them, with each of the tales becoming more complex in its storytelling techniques as they evolve.
Where GHOST STORIES stands as truly modern is in its complex use of sound throughout the show. Conveying everything from whispers in your ears to the loudest-pitched screams, GHOST STORIES’ sound design is superb. The visuals are just in front of you, but the audio is a 360-degree sensory experience, and the creative team take full advantage of the full surround capabilities of a modern theater.
Nyman and Dyson are not really known on the North American side of the pond, but Nyman is very popular in Britain as both an actor (on the supernatural drama CROOKED HOUSE, among other) and as a magician co-creating and co-writing the Derren Brown magic series, and Dyson is the highly regarded co-creator and star of THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMAN. Their friendship goes back almost three decades, but their love of horror movies and comics finally led them to put GHOST STORIES together two years ago. When this writer met up with the duo after the premiere, they confirmed their love of horror films; commenting that they’re both huge Fango fans, they added that GHOST STORIES was inspired by their love of magazines like ours, EC Comics and the simple art of telling stories around the fire. Nyman is still starring in the London production of GHOST STORIES (as the professor), and they plan on expanding the show to other cities and then finally into a feature film. Judging by the sold-out and enthusiastic crowd on opening night, this has a good chance of haunting us further.
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