Picture This Productions and Stories Like These in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers present the world premiere of SYDNEY GHOST STORIES at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
Six Australian writers: Toby Schmitz, Lachlan Philpott, Verity Laughton, Tobsha Learner, Rebecca Clarke and Stephen Sewell. Four Directors: Dean Carey, Anthony Skuse, Katy Alexander, Glenn Fraser. Six actors: Jamie Irvine, Jamie McGregor, Joe Manning, Jennefa Soldatic, Catherine Terracini and Matthew Walker. Collectively this team have organised a night that "began as a bare-bones show for the bare stage. [They] chose ghost stories as a way to get back to the basics of storytelling - sittting 'round the campfire' in a dark theatre. A number of the finest playwrights in Sydney were approached and asked to conjure up supernatural tales set in their own city." They did.
The best thing about the night is to have this group of writers on a Sydney stage before the year is out. Thank the companies for their enterprise and, I imagine, audacity for asking them. Except for Mr Philpott (BISON) none of these writers have been represented on our stages this year. And although the works are mostly only 10 to 15 minutes long it is always intriguing to engage with these artists even at this modesty. I especially enjoyed BLACK WEDDING by Tobsha Learner and ACT 2 by Stephen Sewell, although all of the work is worth catching.
My biggest disappointment was that the ghost stories were not ghostly enough. In fact the most viscerally thrilling bit was the INTRO delivered by Jamie McGregor (The text has no author acknowledged). After Mr McGregor had done the usual palaver of welcoming us to the Old Fitz and thanking us for supporting independent theatre etc, etc. there was an introduction concerning the history of this old hotel, in which the theatre exists, and of the ghosts present in the building. Events and people long past and long dead connected to the Old Fitzroy Hotel and Woolloomloo were talked about - it became too spooky to remain comfortable. (Even a deceased actor friend of mine was mentioned as a ghostly presence in the theatre - I had a few uncomfortable moments, I can assure you.) There followed the story of this company of artists, in the dark of the theatre, as part of their rehearsal process, holding a seance with an expert supervising, and, the consequent commotion, and it was enough to have one slightly breathless and more than fascinatingly transfixed for the evening. I was sucked in and primed for more. Mr McGregor was tremendous in setting the tone. Vocally and with timing that held suspense long enough to draw us in. Stares into empty spaces just behind our heads etc. Unfortunately, the atmosphere never quite reached that state again.
The tales are expertly written but I came to think they were weird stories rather than ghost stories (although they all dealt with ghosts) and felt they were more like a collection of tales from the TWILIGHT ZONE. They tended to be intellectual teasers and a bit a wanky rather than visceral and scary. Mr McGregor with his INTRO had set such a tone of anticipatory scariness that what followed was, disappointingly, never as thrilling.
Except for Mr McGregor none of the rest of the acting under the guidance of these directors found that level of spookiness. I always felt safe and undisturbed by these tales. A kind of cool disaffected connection was the principal affect, where the observation of the tales seemed to be enough for these actors rather than the subjective experiencing of the events.
The setting (Andrew Bowden) of black and white newspaper collages and blow ups somehow seemed to ground the possibilities of the stories to simply strange reality rather than other dimensions of a spirit world. The music chosen (Braedy Neal), of contemporary popular raucousness was not conducive to the tone of Ghost Stories (although some of the effects were interesting). The mood created by the sound connections between plays was wordly and seemed to pump us into rock concert mode instead of gripping us with tensions. Each break became a rest of recognisable pop culture rather than a possible turning of the screw. The Lighting (Matt Cox), from my seat, seemed to be underlit and rather than creating atmosphere, was frustrating.
Still, this is a very generous night in the theatre and it is a pleasure to re-acquaint with these writers, while we wait for them to find their work on mainstage again. What a great idea as well, SYDNEY GHOST STORIES!!!!!! On Radio National this past week on Movies Talk Back there was a discussion about the horror movie genre and why it never really goes away. In my theatre going memory I treasure the staging of THE INNOCENTS (a version of Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW) I saw as a teenager, and rather than just ghost stories but thrillers like DIAL M FOR MURDER and WAIT UNTIL DARK and been scared out of my wits. It, being live on stage made it all the more scary. A new contemporary go at this genre for us Mr Sewell? Mr Schmitz? Ms Learner? Ms laughton? Ms Clarke? Mr Philpott? Come on gals and guys a little bit of contemporary bravura like THE BELLS on stage might be a pleasure for all of those vampire, zombie fans out there. Live, rather than a cinematic experience. What about it?
Come on Stephen King keeps at it. And he is both popular and rich. It might be more fun than HAPPY DAYS. I dare you all.
Playing now until 20 December.
For more information or to book click here.