Chris Levens as Simon
Chris Levens as Simon
© Alastair Muir

After runs in Toronto and Moscow, Ghost Stories returns to London's West End and the suitably dark Arts Theatre.

It's a show of precision engineered schlock, where masterful staging and effects are at the service of writing that, though accomplished and smart, is never particularly inspired.

A keen but skeptical parapsychologist (Paul Kemp) presents a lecture about a triptych of ghost stories: a night-watchmen (Philip Whitchurch) is spooked in an empty warehouse, a young man (Chris Levens) is involved in an incident on a deserted road, and a stockbroker (Gary Shelford) believes the new nursery he has built is haunted. I can't say more than that about the plot however, as Mousetrap-style, the theatre PA instructs the audience to keep the play's denouement secret.

Writers Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson are fans of the horror genre and the show is full of both knowing jokes (everything happens at a quarter to four in the morning) and carefully timed shocks. The audience on the night I attended screamed regularly, and both the play and performers are wise to the vaudeville atmosphere the stories provoke. At its best moments Ghost Stories is able to build significant tension, though once established it's often swiftly popped. This is probably the best way to keep a mass audience onside, but the reticence about true horror will disappoint some.

It may seem a little churlish to describe the writing as mechanical, especially as on its own terms it is effective, and yet the play often feels constrained. The framing device of the lecture almost seems passive aggressive in its desire to anaesthetize the audience's own skepticism, while the stories (whose protagonists are all middle-aged white men) are such careful homages to earlier works that they tend to lack vitality. Conor McPherson's The Weir (still running just down the street at the Wyndham's Theatre) shows how ghost stories can achieve markedly more sophisticated psychological effects once allowed to interweave with a story that one can't imagine would be so easily transposed to a spreadsheet.

Even so with Paul Kemp and Philip Whitchurch in good form, and some wonderful lighting and sound effects, Ghost Stories is undeniably fun, and should continue to attract large audiences.