Belt Up Theatre begin their new theatre residency this February by leaving the auditorium far behind, as A Ghost Walk does exactly what it says on the tin: leading the audience around the medieval streets of York in hot pursuit of ghosts. We are guided by a young man who tells us that not only does he come from a long line of ghost walkers, but that he does not believe in ghosts. Sadly, attempts at establishing theatrical traditions such as characters or, indeed, a narrative do not progress much further than this interesting contradiction, and so the piece struggles to become more than just a guided tour with extras. However, the tourist formula is shaken up: “People only see ghosts when they want to” we are told, so this performance of the supernatural becomes less fake blood and ripped sheets, and more discomforting shadows and suspicious noises.
York has the dubious honour of being the most haunted city in the world, and so we are spoilt for choice with tales of screaming Civil War amputees, tortured Catholic martyrs and insane murderesses. In our age of sensationalist tabloid reportage and Tarantino movies, these stories are engaging but not shocking. The evening serves better to remind the audience of England’s grisly and frankly disturbing past of highly creative capital punishment. These sombre reflections are tempered by moments of delightfully modern humour. Ushering us across a road, our guide points to the flashing pedestrian lights, noting, “The Green Man – our first apparition of the night.” At times, parody creeps in to play with the traditional supernatural clichés. A supporting performer at one point rushes in wearing ghost fancy dress, to be casually put down with the apology, “Sorry – Ryan’s new”.
The city itself is the star of A Ghost Walk, as our path of deserted squares and eerie snickelways (that’s alleys, to you and me) is more immediately spooky than the most lavishly-budgeted set. Liberal amounts of evening fog and the Gothic splendour of the Minster do a good deal of the work, being definitely more responsible for the occasional spine-tingle than the fear that we’re about to be chased down by the Grim. However, this natural ghost set also comes with some unfortunate props and sound effects – kebab vans, drunken punters, ambulance sirens and loud pub music, which prevents the evening from ever becoming a truly chilling success.
A Ghost Walk works fairly well as a walking tour, but fails as a piece of theatre. Despite some strengths, it is simply too difficult to scare in such an intimate, realistic setting, and Belt Up Theatre have tried too hard to be clever in this ambitious piece that oversteps itself. Our guide’s attempts to appear unsettled just make him look like he’s fumbling his lines, while the ending, in which he claims to be so overwhelmed that he cannot continue, is an unsuccessful attempt to give the evening a storyline that can justify the price of the ticket. Having been led back to the theatre by a supporting performer, everyone looks around at each other, silently asking, “What’s next?” It turns out nothing is, so with a staggering sense of anticlimax, everyone drifts off awkwardly into the chilly night.