Fear; an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm. Yet, when it comes to ghostly phenomena, fear is something we seem to relish. Campfire tales, novels, horror films and theatrical productions, we just can’t seem to get enough. It is a genre that has been around for centuries, and one that has sparked the imagination of many of the greatest writers, from classic literature to modern bestsellers. Who has hasn’t picked up a Stephen King novel or seen one of his films?  Gothic ghost stories made the transition from page to film exceedingly well, and have become a mainstay in the film industry as well as the stage, if you think back to the enduring popularity of the Shakespearean classic Hamlet. Since 1987, The Woman in Black is a perennial favourite, and so it seems is the more recent Ghost Stories, which in just 10 years has not only completed numerous worldwide tours, but also spawned a well-received movie version in 2017.

Despite science having debunked many an unexplained phenomenon, the concept of an inexplicable ghostly realm persists in our imaginations, and may explain why Ghost Stories has found its niche on the modern stage.  Creators and writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson are keen to keep the plot shrouded in secrecy, so the suspense starts long before you enter the theatre and lights go down. The only teaser you get is that it’s about a professor of parapsychology, Professor Goodman, talking about the only three stories in his career he can’t explain … and that’s all you’re going to get about the story. It’s one of those productions where the audience is asked to guard its secrets, allowing new audiences to discover them for themselves.

The theatre wasn’t full on the opening night at the New Victoria, but the audience was a lively, enthusiastic, mostly youngish crowd, full of anticipation and nervy pre-drinks. The three foyers and bar areas were suitably decorated and acoustically animated, so that even as you went through the bag check, you could see that it was probably a good idea to head straight for the toilets and then the bar. There was a lot of giggling and loud laughter as the audience entered the auditorium, clutching plastic cups of alcohol beverages, having been pre-warned there would be no interval during the performance. When they were told to turn off their devices by a stern and serious overhead voice, everyone obeyed and a hush fell. Tension, or perhaps the A/C turned up, and the play began.

Expecting the unexpected is certainly what the audience get, right from the beginning. The story twists and turns with hardly time to breathe between laughter and jump scares, let alone take a sneaky look at your watch. Lighting, sound, set and, of course, special effects play as big a role as the actors, making it a multi-sensory experience. The principal cast in this tour are Joshua Higgott, Paul Hawkyard, Gus Gordon and Richard Sutton, who deserve credit for their performances.

Ghost Stories is a homage to the genre; tradition tropes merge with the modern, and suspense, fear and laughter provide a very entertaining and unexpected evening’s entertainment.

[Amanda Briggs January 2020]

Ghost Stories is playing at the New Victoria, Woking, from Tuesday 28 January to Saturday 1 February