Ghost Stories – Theatre Review

Produced by Amy Johnson and Nathan Alexander for Realscape Productions (AU), Jeremy Dyson, Sean Holmes, and Andy Nyman, and written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Ghost Stories is a production that I’ve been waiting a very long time to see. I wanted to see the film adaptation, as I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to see the stage production. However, I waited patiently, and it was very much worth the wait.

Now, you’ve most likely seen the trailers featuring audience members screaming in terror and holding onto the person next to them. This isn’t an attempt to exaggerate audience reactions to trick you about how scary Ghost Stories is. I saw numerous audience members screaming and grasping for the person next to them during my attendance. I even saw one audience member almost jump out of their seat. The fear that Ghost Stories brings on the audience is the classic fear that few horror films ignite in audience members these days. That primal fear of the unknown, triggering our fight or flight response, and it is something that was great to see and be a part of.

The way to describe the plots as simply as possible is that we are watching a lecture from Dr. Phillip Goodman (Steve Rodgers), a Professor of Parapsychology retelling stories from three percipients (a person that has a had an experience with a supernatural entity). However, his lecture is more than just re-enactments of percipients stories. Segments of the lecture are devoted to ghost photography and the history of ghost stories. None of this is boring or out of place. A large portion of this is due in part to Rodgers’ performance being both realistic and comedic. These moments were some of my favourites as I’ve always wanted my disbelief of ghosts to be proven wrong.

The cast is what turns Ghost Stories into something more than just wanting them to scare the bejesus out of you. The cast member that most of the audience would be most familiar with is the always charismatic and talented Jay Laga’aia, whose character Tony Matthews is perhaps the most likeable and garnered the most laughs. That’s right, there’s laughs as well as terror. Laga’aia plays his characters as sympathetic and the most likeable, playing a man that has worked his whole life and whose experience is perhaps the most linked to his personal story. This was the most compelling aspect, as each character’s encounter was tied seamlessly to their personal life.

Darcy Brown plays Simon Rifkin, a teen driver that has had his lies finally catch up with him, Brown walks a line of playing Simon as irresponsible and lacking maturity. But somehow, his portrayal still had me incredibly concerned for his character. In my session, Mike Priddles (Nick Simpson-Deeks) story was the most terrifying, and it was sequence that had audience members jumping from their seat. His character is the least likeable, but Simon-Deeks is so funny and committed to his performance he had me truly liking him. The casting of Ghost Stories is so wonderful, that having these excellent actors provide diverse characters that are fully fleshed out and expertly performed, combined with the exciting and seat-jump inspiring stories, makes for the best performances in the horror genre that I’ve witnessed in a very long time.

The effects by Scott Penrose in Ghost Stories are incredible. I love when practical effects are used as they highlight the amount of creative work and passion that is undoubtedly in every moment of Ghost Stories. Multiple sequences left me wondering exactly how they did it, a rare thing in modern horror where CGI effects are the majority.

The use of puppets, lighting, and perhaps the most effective, the use of sets is incredibility effective. Some of these create a sense of unease and tension that is comparable to how Guillermo Del Toro uses sets in his horror films. High praise, I know, but deserved. I will always argue that if lighting and music are ineffective, a horror experience won’t be successful. But Ghost Stories knocks both requirements out of the park. Lighting designer James Farncombe uses light that is almost completely diegetic, so the characters stories always stay in the world of reality. There is a sequence using car headlights as lighting, that had the audience reacting and completely entranced by the cleverness of the sequence.

If there’s one thing that I can’t stand in horror, it’s the overuse of the jump scare musical sting – a cliché that is so overused, it has lost its effect. Now, there are musical stings in Ghost Stories, but sound designer Nick Manning has gone down the diegetic route that was a welcome change from the cliché. I was never once taken out of the world built by the show because I heard that dreaded horror movie jump scare noise. The use of sound in Ghost Stories was one of my favourite aspects because sound in modern horror very rarely uses diegetic sound to elicit fear in the audience.

Ghost Stories is so much more than a generic horror that only horror fans can take enjoy. The stories are truly compelling, using all technical aspects so perfectly alongside the talented actors consistently maintaining the tension of a horror so much, that when the tension eased, I was still completely immersed. There are genuine moments of terror here, so Ghost Stories delivers on its promise, but it’s the stories, the strong performances and the impressive effects that combine to make Ghost Stories so much more than a generic horror experience.

Ghost Stories is playing in Melbourne until November 5th at the Athenaeum Theatre.
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Photography by Charles Alexander.

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