Typical: you wait ages for a spooky theatrical tale, then three turn up at once. This effective but bizarre skin-crawler arrives days after the superior 2:22 A Ghost Story showcased Lily Allen’s impressive acting debut and weeks before classic chiller The Woman in Black reopens. Maybe we all want safe, contained scares. Certainly, this knowingly hokey play by Paul Morrissey (who also directs) and James Milton delivers its sparing shocks well and generates a heady atmosphere of suspense. But the structure is – deliberately, it seems – all over the place.
It’s a dark and stormy night. John, a former Guernsey newspaper editor turned local history vlogger, invites a young author to talk about paranormal happenings on this tiny, liminal island, a haven of weirdness. The author relates five stories across five centuries, all gruesome - a woman accused of witchcraft giving birth in the pyre; a pregnant girl stabbed after witnessing her sailor lover’s murder; a British spy immolated by Nazi occupiers – and all tangentially linked.
As Alex Phelps’s cartoonishly sinister writer reveals the grisly details, Will Barton’s blokey, no-nonsense John starts to join in, sometimes supplying extra narrative, sometimes acting out the parts. Sudden blackouts, bumps in the night, and startling manifestations scare him – and us – to bits, but after each, both men act as if nothing has happened. The acting is uneven, but neither Phelps nor Barton is given a proper character or a linear way through the plot.
Rather, the play riffs on a set of themes, blending Guernsey’s established folklore with sinister invention and what sound like in-jokes. And like all ghost stories, it’s an experiment into how easily and for how long the audience’s nerves can be manipulated. To call it ‘meta’ would be to overstate the case.
Though the hair stirred on my scalp several times, that’s as much down to the excellent work of the sound and lighting designers, illusion co-ordinator, and particularly the stage managers, as it is to the writing, direction and performances. That said, Morrissey and Milton are primarily producers, who started writing this show in 2015 as a one-nighter to entertain and scare people. So this result, however rackety, is a win, I guess.
Until Sept 4: parktheatre.co.uk