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Review: 2:22 A Ghost Story at Liverpool Empire ***

It seems we humans have always loved to scare ourselves – and each other.

From tales of spirits told around the fire in ancient times to jump-out-of-your-seat film frighteners like The Shining and the Blair Witch Project, anything that gets the adrenalin rushing and the blood pumping attracts us like moths to a flame.

But does it take more to shock us in this seen-everything 21st Century world? Perhaps.

That’s certainly an additional challenge for storytellers who want to make us uneasy in our seats. And even un-easier when we get home to a dark house afterwards.

Podcaster and playwright Danny Robins has long had a fascination with the paranormal and our responses to it, whether they be absolute belief or cynical scepticism.

He brings both sides of the divide together in 2:22 A Ghost Story, out on a UK tour after successive successful runs at a series of West End theatres.

The Woman in Black proved a sell-out success for the Playhouse last Christmas, and there seems to have been a similar appetite for this West End award-winner at the much more capacious Empire if the run’s limited ticket availability is anything to go by.

Talking of Susan Hill’s supernatural chiller, if you want to get the measure of Robins’ tale, perhaps imagine The Woman in Black meeting Abigail’s Party – albeit with ‘Sam’s dinner party playlist’ on Alexa rather than Demis Roussos on the stereo.

(I would add a further, cinematic, reference, but fear it might prove too much of a plot spoiler.)

Above: Fiona Wade as Jenny and George Rainsford as Sam. Top: The cast of 2:22 A Ghost Story. Photos by Johan Persson.

Set in the living space of a generically gentrified London home (think John Lewis furniture department), the action centres around a ghastly middle-class supper party thrown by recent parents Sam (George Rainsford) and Jenny (Fiona Wade).

The guests are Sam’s old university friend Lauren (Vera Chok), and her current boyfriend, builder Ben (Jay McGuiness – last seen on the Empire stage in White Christmas), whom an insufferably snobbish Sam dismisses for his non-U accent and conversation.

It soon becomes apparent that an anxious Jenny has an ulterior motive for the party, as while Sam’s been away working, she’s been troubled by things that go bump in the night. At 2.22am each night to be precise. And she wants a household of witnesses to confirm she’s not going mad.

While astronomer Sam voices his 'reasonable' scientific opinion, Ben admits he’s a believer in ghosts, and it turns out psychiatrist Lauren has her own reasons for not dismissing Jenny’s rising fears out of hand.

Robins weaves strands of misdirection through the plot, and if some audience members may guess the denouement in advance, the audible intake of breath from the auditorium as a whole as the clock finally reaches the titular time suggests there’s still plenty of surprise in his ghost story.

It also prompts plenty of ‘do you believe in/have you seen ghosts?’ type conversations in the interval.

What it rather lacks however, despite some smart lines and the cast’s best efforts, is much of a palpable sense of simmering suspense or unbearable feeling of dread.

Above: Sam (George Rainsford), Jenny (Fiona Wade), Lauren (Vera Chok) and Ben (Jay McGuiness) in 2:22 A Ghost Story. Photo by Johan Persson.

As the clock ticks inexorably towards witching hour, the couples – fuelled by alcohol and grievances - descend from jokes and bickering into an awful lot of confrontational shouting. But shouting doesn’t necessarily create atmosphere, and the risk is it all ends up feeling a bit ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

The action unfolds amid the claustrophobic confines of Anna Fleishchle’s modern sitting room-come-dining kitchen set which itself sits in a box in the middle of the Empire’s expansive and otherwise blacked out stage. Those at the margins of the stalls may find they can’t see right to the edges, although a digital clock which ticks onwards towards 2:22 remains a beacon.

Scenes are punctuated by a plunge into complete darkness (auditorium included) which is accompanied by sharp, piercing screaming. We find out early on what the disconcerting sound is, but that just dispels the disquiet one assumes it’s meant to create.

Fleischle and illusionist Chris Fisher also worked together on The Time Traveller’s Wife, which was premiered at Chester Storyhouse a couple of years ago. While there Fisher got to showcase all sorts of clever sleight-of-hand and visual trickery, here his talent for magic seems mostly confined to a séance episode in the second half.

Meanwhile another Time Traveller’s Wife alumnus is lighting designer Lucy Carter, who plays a key role here in creating a suitably febrile atmosphere.


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