[The following contains spoilers.]
Tychy was wowed last year by Stewart Pringle’s play “As Ye Sow,” but I had prepared myself to be disappointed by his latest, “The Ghost Hunter,” because it is a one-man show (see Tychy passim for more characteristic griping on this front). Despite this self-imposed limitation “The Ghost Hunter” does not ultimately disappoint. Yet first you must clear your head of ghosts.
AYS was essentially an MR James extravaganza and a rarity amongst theatrical ghost stories in setting out with great determination to frighten its audiences. “The Ghost Hunter” does not necessarily beat a retreat from James, whose stories were actually first read as monologues. Neither is the writing itself inferior in quality to that of AYS, and Tom Richards is put to very good use as the soloist. But we have moved on to new things and this play has largely abandoned the traditional English ghost story for more contemporary concerns.
“The Ghost Hunter” is presently running in one of the Pleasance’s many scruffy pockets. We are serenaded by Dick Barraclough, a luckless actor and York ghost tour guide, who looks supremely Victorian in his top-hat, sideburns and a moustache which could pierce the soupiest industrial fog. We are a long time sinking into our fireside armchairs, as Richards has fun warming up. Easily amused, I liked the joke which involves him wandering off to the toilet, leaving us all to gaze helplessly at an empty stage.
The literary ghost story has always constituted a sort of escapism, with the contract stipulating that we trade in our world of dreary materialism for pseudo-feudal frights. Yet Barraclough makes us uneasily aware of the present day; his Victorian costume actually reminds us of the fading of Victorian certainties. This is a deindustrialised York, where half of Barraclough’s friends seem to eke a living out of retelling old stories rather than producing new things. Barraclough is a former alcoholic and his spooks are drearily materialistic, in helping him to pay the bills rather than to escape reality. He is tired of fictional ghosts and he will be unexpectedly demoralised by the faintest whisper of a real one.
He is a depleted figure and even his jokes seem to fail in the end. One moment of suspense is terminated with a middle-aged moan about HMRC. Elsewhere he is brandishing a comical ghost-detecting contraption, but the suspense builds and then passes. It is all with the resignedly lacklustre jollity of something which is put on for the tourists.
Everything begins to be wound up, however, once the pitter-patter of little ghostly feet have entered the story. Barraclough’s best and most popular tale is in fact homemade: a weepy Victorian myth about children being starved in a sham school. It is the mixture of a Dickensian melodrama which has gone rancid in the heat and a scene from modern “child protection” publicity campaigns.
The ghost-hunter’s clients do not want to be spooked by ghostly revenge; they instead long to moon over the prospect of abused children. Barraclough is selling these children’s distress just as his imaginary schoolmaster had once exploited them for shillings. I do not know whether “The Ghost Hunter” was written before or after the Jimmy Savile exposures, but it captures some subtle flavour of the media’s histrionics. Unlike Barraclough’s ghostly children, Savile’s victims were not simply made up. Yet the moral panic that they inspired would shake public institutions, and Barraclough’s ghosts may similarly acquire a greater reality of their own. Perhaps we should treasure the Victorians’ ghosts but give them back their mindset.