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The Ghost Hunter
Published on Wednesday, 07 August 2013

4 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
31 Jul, 1-14, 16-26 Aug, 2:00pm-3:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

In a vaulted cellar beneath the Pleasance sports hall, a spooky-looking man in a Victorian tail-coat wants to talk to us about ghosts. He’s a tour guide, we’re told – one of those portentous men with an arsenal of tall tales, who lead gaggles of tourists around the city at night. We’ve joined him in the pub, unwinding after a tour and supping a pint of ale. As time wears on and the beer slips down, our host shares his secrets and the tricks of his trade… and inevitably, before the hour is up, his monologue takes a scarier and more personal turn.

With boggle eyes, a sad face and a bushy moustache, actor Tom Richards impeccably captures the dual personality of the ghost-walker: prone to over-acting when he’s on the street, but laconic and cynical off it.  Yet even when he’s not on duty, it seems he can’t help telling Horrible Histories stories, of the ghosts that stalk the city of York and the grisly realities that inspire them.  He’s an engrossing, engaging speaker, who gently but inescapably drew me into his world; and even though I knew he was an actor, I felt he formed a real personal connection with the people in the room.  There was one telling moment when he leaned forward in his chair – and in perfect unison, the whole front row of his audience leaned forward too.

Playwright Stuart Pringle, meanwhile, has a finely-tuned instinct for horror.  His set-piece story is hideous – properly, authentically hideous – but he builds towards it gently, with a hint here and a few words there to signpost the dread to come.  You would, of course, bet a thousand pounds that a real ghost will eventually appear, but the ending’s still surprising and enjoyably enigmatic.  Pringle drops some clues, and draws some clever parallels… but he leaves his audience to make up their own minds about exactly what it all might mean.

There were occasions when the monologue did lapse into being just a ghost tour delivered indoors, but even then Pringle adds some reflective twists: listen out for the fascinating deconstruction of why a room turns into a shrine.  And there are substantial themes to mull over as well, about whether places have memories, and just where those memories might be born.

My only real reservation about this play is that it’s very simply staged.  There’s no significant use of lighting or sound, and precious little set; given five minutes to don his costume, Richards could put on the show almost anywhere.  In a way, that’s part of his honest charm, but a few more of the trappings of theatre might help elevate the monologue from the gently unsettling to the genuinely scary.  Still, for what it is – a man chatting in a cellar – it really couldn’t be any better.  So do find the time to visit The Ghost Hunter, for a masterclass in small-scale acting and some pleasant afternoon chills.

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