Directed by Peter J Snee
Drama Theatre, Opera House
Bennelong Point, Sydney
Season: 10 July – 15 August
It is a peculiar relationship we have with scary stories and the horror genre. The elation we feel seems to be rather irrational as we embrace the possibilities, albeit unlikely possibilities, of spooky forces and events occurring in this world, scaring us out of our wits. Peter Snee’s Ghost Stories capitalises on this strange human desire to create a gripping show, with a killer cast and nifty technical tricks to boot, Ghost Stories blurs the boundary between the actual and the perceived.
The show kicks off in a keynote speaker format, led by Professor Phillip Goodman, played by Lynden Jones. Professor Goodman enlightens the audience as to the various interviews he has undertaken with individuals who swear that they encountered a ghost, or had a comparable experience. The near-clinical form of presentation and seemingly mundane beginning served to lull the audience into a false sense of security – a clever start. Jones shines in his presentational style, however at points seemed to lack connection with the other actors on stage as he proceeded to interview them about their experience.
Onwards, the show retells a series of episodic supernatural experiences through Goodman’s interviewing. These include the recounts of a night watchman, played by John Gregg, a teenage driver, played by Aleks Mikić, and a businessman and new father, played by Ben Wood. Particularly the first two episodes explored the power of suspense and how anticipatory tension can be built to extract a satisfying thrill for the audience. As a staple in the horror genre bag of tricks, this technique was successfully employed, and augmented by the eerie lighting design, by Christopher Page, and revolving stage. Mikić was charming in his role as Simon, as he grappled with his inexplicable experience. All characterisations were strong, and Wood as Mike Priddle, the businessman, was delightful, and vaguely unnerving as he paired canny comic timing with a sinister edge to draw the audience into the mystery.
The strength in this work arises from its drawing on innumerable years of experimentation and development of technique and flair in the horror movie industry. Moving from the West End of London to Sydney and already having being performed to over 400,000 people the show’s formula is tried and tested, to achieve consistent scares night after night. The audience was undoubtedly given some great frights and shocked by the twists the plot took, however to horror movie buffs the scares may ring a little predictable. In spite of this, even to those with nerves of steel, the show continues to possess intrigue and is not rendered impotent in its occasional jump-scare predictability – sometimes the anticipation of something frightful can create a stronger impact than the scare itself.
In its early stages of performance run, management of set and technical changes needs to be tightened up in order to sustain the theatrical illusion. The occasional thud and conspicuous movement draws focus from the chilling proceedings on stage. Director Snee has a background in creating technical stage illusions, as developed in his direction of Houdini in the UK, allowing him to apply this knowledge to Ghost Stories. Without the blood and guts some horror works are reliant upon, the believability of these techniques must not be compromised. The apt capacity of the cast to respond to ghostly proceedings on stage with resolute focus and conviction is pivotal to suspending audience believability – I think this was largely achieved.
Human mirth in the horror genre is inextricable from emotions of fear and humour, tied down to the primal fight or flight instinct. As horror movies continue to be churned out in cinemas each year, cradled in the popular techniques of shaky camera shots or excessive blood, Snee’s Ghost Stories is a testament to the ability of artists to extract the mystifying emotion of self-induced fear in a live setting. With gleeful results.