After a series of gripping podcasts on the paranormal, at London’s Gielgud Theatre, Danny Robins presents a captivating ghost story that sets the standard for future horror productions in the West End.
Perhaps forming a repressed residue of Popish superstition in a country that was historically dominated by a particularly hard-nosed, no-nonsense brand of Protestantism, it is especially in Britain that the atmospheric supernatural tale has taken deep roots in the nation’s popular culture. In fact, since the ghosts in Shakespeare’s tragedies, spectres have been regular features of theatre plays, novels and movies, while the English country-house became such a staple of the horror genre that it ended up becoming an object of satire, rather than respectable fright. However, throughout the centuries, British ghost stories also always adapted themselves to changing times and audiences, as writers such as Charles Dickens and the Cambridge don M.R. James transported ‘their spectres’ into Victorian and Edwardian settings that were recognizable and often intimately familiar to their readers.
Yet, while documentaries such as Haunted Underground (2005) which investigated paranormal experiences made by ordinary people on the London Tube in a realistic format, pointed towards a promisingly modern evolution of the genre, in the following almost two decades, spectres remained strangely stuck in Victorian times (The Woman in Black, 2012), as well as the 1920s (like in Mark Gatiss’s annual Christmas-adaptions of M.R. James’s Ghost Stories). What is sorely missing are supernatural tales that – to us and future generations – could count as genuine products and representations of our time, and which can resonate with today’s audiences through their settings, plots and characters in a similar way as the British horror classic Dead of Night (1945) did which in its claustrophobic staging and artistic use of the time-loop concept evoked the nightly horrors of the Blitz.
Instead, the baton of developing the supernatural genre has been taken up across the Atlantic by the cinematic heirs of H.P. Lovecraft, with Netflix shows, such as Haunted, American Ghost Story The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Haunting of Hill House leading the way in reimagining the spooky tale for the 21st century in ways that do not feel fully contemporary, but also not fully antiquated.
If this trend had continued, this article would now lament the sad demise of one of Britain’s best narrative inventions and its inevitable trashification by the Hollywood machine. Fortunately, for the genre and the nation’s cultural heritage, the past few years have seen the classic ghost story being revived in movies such as Ghost Stories (2017), intriguing books published at the height of the pandemic, like The Haunting of Alma Fielding by journalist Kate Summerscale, and finally a series of three extremely popular supernatural podcasts created by broadcaster and writer Danny Robins that have captivated millions of listeners with hair-raising tales of haunted Scottish mountain bothies (Uncanny, Episode 10 and 11), the unexplained, real case of the Battersea Poltergeist and the racist legacies of South Africa’s past (Haunted, Episode 4 ‘The Thing in the Attic’)
Last year, Robins added to this supernatural canon with a long-planned theatre play entitled 2:22 A Ghost Story which, due to popular demand, is currently seeing its second, widely applauded run at London’s Gielgud Theatre. The play, it can be said without any exaggeration, is among the best reinventions of the classic ghost story that recent British theatre has produced.
Narrating a case that could easily be an episode in one of his shows, Robins presents us with the story of a middle-aged couple consisting of the cheery, hardened sceptic astrologist Sam (Elliot Cowan), and his wife (played by Giovanna Fletcher, for whom Rhiannon Handy has stood in admirably) who have recently moved into a half-renovated house where they plan to raise their new-born child. Yet this middle-class harmony is violently disturbed by ghostly footsteps that keep recurring at precisely 2:22am every night and which Sam, who has spent some days away from home, dismisses out of hand as products of Jenny’s imagination. Unnerved and disbelieved by her rationalistic husband and to prove to herself that she is not going insane, Jenny asks Sam’s friend, the psychologist Lauren (Stephanie Beatriz) and her new partner, the jovial builder Ben (James Buckley), who have been invited for dinner to stay until the hour in question and become witnesses of the paranormal. Throughout the night which is interrupted by very effective jump scares, fox screams and a crescendo of spectral activity, the two couples debate the nature of paranormal phenomena and the possibility of ghosts (‘Why are they not naked?’), while a red clock is menacingly ticking down the hours until 2:22. To the connoisseur of Robins’ broadcasting work, this set-up mimics the amicable jousting of sceptics and believers that we encounter in each episode of his shows and which has kept the right balance between otherwise polar positions on the paranormal spectrum.
While paranormal activities are usually linked to past lives and traumatic events, Robins is too clever a writer to merely recount the history of the house as an explanation for the spooky phenomena going on inside its walls. Instead, the memory of its previous inhabitants is indirectly evoked through broken layers of wallpaper and household goods left behind by deceased tenants. At the same time, Robins and director Matthew Dunster situate the play in our age of technological rationalisation and primitive AI, using Amazon’s Alexa as a clever dramatic device, while also repeatedly, yet never heavy-handedly alluding to the social reality of living in Britain in 2022. Thus, in one particularly memorable scene, we hear Ben pondering the gentrification of formerly proletarian housing projects in which he grew up as the destruction of a rich working-class culture of superstition, patriotism and World War Two memories. At another point, we are reminded of the crisis in academic salaries, as Ben is planning the publication of a book called Astronomy for Idiotswhose proceeds could conceivably make it feasible to leave the haunted house that is pushing his wife to the brink of a nervous collapse. It is this almost sociological dissection of the lives of his protagonists that give Robins’ script its realistic depth which in turn allows the audience a full immersion in the unexplained phenomena occurring in the house. After two hours, the play finally culminates in an ending that leaves the spectator with an emotional cocktail of sadness, apprehension and melancholic relief – which is precisely the way you want to feel after seeing 2:22 A Ghost Story.