It was a dark, moonlit night. The cold air chilled my very bones. A light breeze stalked me, breathing insistently on the back of my neck. And that was just before the press night of Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, who co-direct with Holmes, know a lot about creating a creepy atmosphere. As the audience enters the auditorium it is like entering a ghost train or a haunted house. Piles of gravel line the floor. Unexplained numbers are scribbled on the walls. Flickering lanterns light the theatre. We are already on edge, teetering on the brink.
What follows – and here I have to be careful not to give too much away – is a lecture about ghosts in which three particular tales of the unexpected are retold for the gathered audience; three tales that, from all of the research done by our lecturer, stand out as special. A warehouse nightwatchman alone in the dead of night. A 20-year-old driving home through a deserted wood. A businessman with a baby on the way.
The set-ups might sound like familiar tales of spooky occurrences, but they are handled in such a way as to make that a positive. Nyman and Dyson, clearly and demonstrably horror fanboys, understand the delicious quality of suspense and tension. We know something is going to happen – the show is called Ghost Stories, after all – but they tease and tease and tease and tease, making us wait on the edge of our seat, hearts in mouths, gripping whatever or whoever we can, for the moment of terrifying release.
These three tales alone would be enough to freeze the blood, but the show’s denouement adds a horror on a very different scale. I will say no more than that.
The production uses everything it can to achieve this, from strong performances among the cast and a script that rises and falls, dropping in wonderfully timed dry humour to break the tension only to build it up again, to Jon Bausor’s simple set, Nick Manning’s all-important sound design and James Farncombe’s lighting, which might be better described as not-lighting, so cleverly executed is his use of darkness.
Much has been made of the warnings that come with this production that state it is only suitable for audiences aged 16 and older, and that theatregoers of a nervous disposition should avoid the show. If nothing else, these have heaped pressure on the production to deliver frights. If the screams of the first night audience and the jumps, jolts and nervous fidgeting I felt around me are anything to go by, that has certainly been achieved.
Did I have nightmares? No, but I did check over my shoulder once or twice as I walked home through the dark, deserted streets. It felt like someone was following me. But there was no-one there… I think.