Rational, enlightened, modern man that I am, I certainly ain’t afraid of no ghosts. But a good ghost story should chill your bones whatever your beliefs. The Ghost Hunter, at The Old Red Lion Theatre, is sure to unsettle believers and non-believers alike, and entertain anyone who loves a good story. The Old Red Lion Theatre is an appropriate location for such a story, situated as it is above one of the oldest pubs in London, said to be where Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man in the eighteenth century. Its cosy interior and somewhat retro décor contribute to a genial atmosphere which continues to the theatre upstairs. The muffled sounds emanating from the pub downstairs do not, to my mind, distract, but rather add to the atmosphere of the story.
The Ghost Hunter is a creation of Theatre of the Damned, co-founded by Tom Richards and Stewart Pringle, sole performer and writer of this production respectively. The play is a continuation of the Grand Guignol style adopted by the company, an all-but-forgotten repertoire of amoral plays of shocking violence performed in a Parisian theatre. This production takes an altogether subtler turn. It is an unconventional, multi-layered story full of twists, confounding expectations and parroting conventions before dismissing them at the drop of a Victorian top hat. Richards, as Richard Barraclough, is a relaxed and affable narrator with plenty of Northern charm, who draws us into his story, pint of Abbot Ale in his hand. Directed by Jeffrey Mayhew, Richards doesn’t overwhelm the intimate space with theatrics, and there are some well-constructed moments where a tiny gesture or movement is used to create a remarkably accurate impression of a place or feeling.
The play is staged with refreshing simplicity, the design, by Alice Saville, creating the impression that a section of a York pub has been relocated to London, and with it our narrator and story. The few props are well-designed and used to good effect by Richards.
This story contains all the elements of a traditional ghost story, but is ultimately much more than that. This is a ghost story about ghost stories, and about their increasing commodification and commercialisation. The reflection on ghost stories raises wider questions about our attitude to history; how a myth evolves around a germ of truth simultaneously exaggerating and neutralising the horror at its centre. A play about our need to tell stories and our desire to believe them, The Ghost Hunter raises some troubling questions about human nature. Do not go expecting grand spectacle and spurting fake blood, but do expect to be surprised, amused and maybe, just maybe, a little bit frightened.
The Ghost Hunter is playing Old Red Lion Theatre until Saturday 25 May. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.