There’s something coincidentally apt about seeing The Ghost Hunter the day after making the trip down to Brighton for Peter Reder’s The Contents of a House. Reder’s show, following the guided tour format that has stitched a fruitful thread through his past work, takes audiences on a journey around the luxurious parlours and creaking back corridors of Preston Manor, sharing snippets of history and spinning stories about the house’s former inhabitants. The piece both copies and undercuts the form it has appropriated, asking implicit questions about how such guided tours select and present their material for the benefit of curious visitors. So, by sheer serendipity, tourism is on my mind.
Dick, the protagonist of Theatre of the Damned’s new show The Ghost Hunter, adopts a role not all that different from Reder’s. The word “hunter” is deceptive; really, Dick is a storyteller, spooking the tourists and schoolchildren of York with fabricated spirits. He runs a ghost tour, capitalising on the city’s crushing weight of history – Viking invasions and massacres, devastating outbreaks of plague – for the sake of a quick buck. He ransacks local history guides for material, dreams up new yarns over pints in local pubs, and knocks together a Ghostbusters-inspired “communication” device from tinfoil and an old wireless. Punters listen avidly to the white noise, Dick tells us, convinced they can hear voices from the afterlife.
Despite the inclusion of a couple of spine-chilling narratives, Stewart Pringle’s one-man play is less about the art of scaring than about why we tell ghost stories in the first place. Tom Richards’ compelling tour guide, sporting full Victoriana and a rather impressive pair of sideburns, is a failed actor with a drinking problem who fell – quite literally – into the job. It’s an easy enough way to make money, he explains, in a city built on ghosts. Lightly playing with the format of which Dick is a master, the intimate set-up places its audience in much the same position as the tourists who come in their hordes to hear about headless women and restless poltergeists, implicitly questioning the desire that drives this trade. And it is a trade – a roaring one, in fact. Gruesome tales are “contagious”, while ghosts are an “intangible resource”. The ghouls never dry up.
But unlike Reder’s upturning of the guided tour format (which at one point acknowledges our love of a good haunting, asking the staff of Preston Manor to share their supernatural experiences), the focus here is on the storyteller rather than his listeners. What makes a person pursue a living selling terror? Switching skilfully from the charismatic gloss of Dick’s “ghost hunter” persona to the wide-eyed confessional of a man grappling with a different kind of haunting – all the while slurping his pint – Richards reels us in bit by bit, lending a melancholy fascination to Pringle’s slowly unfolding monologue. If ghost stories really are, as Dick’s one-time boss says, “a place to put things you’re too scared to look at any more”, what psychological scars might impel the ghost hunter’s strange art?
Sitting beneath all this is an acute awareness of how ghost stories work, their delicate mechanics. While it takes its time to tighten its icy grip, once the plot has us by the throat it isn’t in any hurry to let go, teasing out small details at just a brisk enough rate to keep its audience engrossed without ever giving too much away. Hints are slyly dropped, stories started and abruptly truncated. Pringle’s script is always knowingly holding something back until the end; the “headliner”, as Dick brands it. There might be rooms along the way that we want to linger in – the exploitation of history and memory for profit, for instance, could do with further investigation, and it would be nice to see more of the sharp humour that punctuates the horror – but the show follows the wisdom of the ghost tour in keeping the journey tightly focused. Like the tourists lusting after their souvenir slice of blood and gore, you won’t want to look away.