Jack Langedijk investigates a mysterious sound in the night.
Approaching a predominantly cinematic genre such as horror to create a stage production is an ambitious endeavour—though not at all an impossible one. Not long ago, in fact, Toronto made that argument loud and clear with the four-part thrill ride The Mill, which proved that theatre could be just as effective a vehicle for thrills and chills as cinema.
Unfortunately, the visiting production of Ghost Stories illustrates the opposite—that a poorly crafted effort can be fairly disastrous.
Originating in London’s West End and hosted in Toronto by Mirvish Productions, the show was aggressively marketed towards a younger, cultish audience over the past several weeks. There were night vision clips of audience reactions, a scary movie film festival, even a heavily sponsored contest that set challengers the task of spending a night in a coffin. Unfortunately, the city’s largest theatre organization trying to court the underground scene tends to feel like your parents telling you the community centre’s haunted house is going to be a real spine-tingler. Arriving at the theatre to find it heavily decorated with caution tape, fake blood, and a looped soundtrack of screeches and howls only served to underline the incongruity of such a Halloween-centric concept being presented mid-spring.
Gasps? Yes. Engaging storytelling? Not so much.
The production’s website warns repeatedly of “moments of extreme shock and tension,” and insists the material is inappropriate for those under the age of fourteen. This in itself seems odd, given that the ghost story cliches used are those most often bandied about over a firepit by adolescent campers in the deep woods—a setting far more appropriate for such tales than the Panasonic Theatre. The stories are presented as part of a lecture given by a skeptical parapsychologist (Jason Blicker) as examples of the few instances that caused him to consider the existence of ghosts. Blicker’s anxious, nasal lecturing didn’t much contribute to the ominous atmosphere, but instead encouraged the constant backdrop of nervous giggling that was a large contributor to the scenes falling flat.
The actual ghost stories—which we won’t go into in too much detail—offer up a tiny hint of pathos and one good start apiece, but they’re each so brief that becoming invested in the characters’ fates is a challenge. The narratives are shaped exclusively around the Big Scare, enough to make the audience jump and keep them tittering until the next setup. It’s a shame, as the actors involved (Jack Langedijk, David Reale, Darrin Baker) hinted at being able to do far more with their underwhelming characters.
While wanting in the storytelling department, it must be noted that Ghost Stories does deliver on some pretty amazing bits of stagecraft. Several fluidly shifting bits of set design nicely emulate cinematic changes in frame and perspective, complemented by carefully crafted lighting design. The fact that the show invests in these visually rewarding elements rather than relying on thankfully absent gore and viscera is commendable, but it would all have been greatly enhanced by a consistent story.
All photos courtesy of Mirvish Productions.