You’re here to play a game with your fear,” says our host, a professor called Philip Goodman. And then he pauses, for sepulchral effect. “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” There’s not much a critic can say about “Ghost Stories” that its creators, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, haven’t already included in the script. This is the most self-conscious of spine-tinglers, a box of scarifying theatrical tricks whose every spring, hinge and secret lever is revealed in advance by our lecturer-emcee. And still we tremble. If “Ghost Stories” proves anything, it’s that a fright anticipated is a fright multiplied.
After its successful stint earlier this year at the Lyric Hammersmith, the show transfers to the West End with its thrills intact. It begins with an address and slide-show by a professor of parapsychology, Goodman (Nyman), who itemizes and debunks various historical spooks and spirits. He then relates three exceptional cases he has studied; the only three among hundreds that he cannot explain. As he begins to tell each tale, it is brought to nerve-jangling life onstage.
Structurally, “Ghost Stories” isn’t as fragmented as it sounds. Its component tales are less separate than they seem. And there’s something eerie about this Professor Goodman — at least if his rolling eyes and drooling are anything to go by. Goodman is the classic example of that genre staple, the doomed sceptic. The more loudly he scorns superstition, the more we sense — dread, even — his ghoulish comeuppance.
That’s not the only horror trope that gets a workout here: Sean Holmes’ production is like a how-to manual for would-be fearmongers. The auditorium is swaddled in police tape and grimy plastic. From its opening burst of ear-splitting screams onward, the show frazzles our senses, with bright lights and pitch darkness, with loud noises, perpetual low rumbles and even, in one scene, an all-pervading smell of bleach. No cliche is left unturned, and it’s clear why. The familiarity of the associations between terror and an empty nursery, say, or rolling fog on a country lane, heightens their potency.
Faint-hearts will spend the show in a near-constant paroxysm of terror. A twist in the tail reveals the intricacy of Nyman and Dyson’s construction. But cleverness isn’t profundity, and “Ghost Stories” is best enjoyed simply as a playful genre masterclass. Its cod-academic talk about “percipients” and human beings as “pattern-seeking creatures” exists solely to soften us up for the thrills to come. And for the laughs – the screams are punctuated with banal comedy, as when night watchman Tony carps about Polish immigrants while his daughter’s ghost haunts the corridors beyond his door. “A game with your fear” is precisely what “Ghost Stories” delivers – and it’s a game that fear is playing to win.