What is it that we love so much about being deliberately being scared?
In times past, the telling of ghost stories was an integral part of Christmas celebrations. Before the schmaltz of adverting came along to coddle us into loving our neighbours, Dickens had the forethought to scare Scrooge into being a better person. Christmas, of course, is based on a pagan winter solstice celebration, when it was thought that the veil between worlds was thinner and the dead could be spoken to more easily. Nowadays the ghost story is more often about gore and violence than true fear of the unknown.
Good storytelling is an art in itself. To be able to hold the attention of a person, or people, without boring them is something most people struggle with, more’s the pity. To be able to tell a ghost story effectively, one must be able to hold the tension of the story like a fine, silk thread, tugging it gently along, allowing the fear of what’s going to happen to build along with it. The storyteller needs to inhabit the story, bring the characters alive with voice and action. This is exactly what happens in Shivers.
There is something eerie about a theatre full of people rapt and tense in their seats, listening intently to a story which is being told more than acted out. In a sell-out performance of the touring show Shivers, writer/performer Adam Z. Robinson and musician Ben Styles managed to hold the audience of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in just this way. Dimmed lights and a strange, haunting musical score from Styles’ single violin allowed the audience to suspend their disbelief and be drawn into an old-fashioned story telling in which three ghost stories, each more chilling than the last, was presented.
If you’re looking for things to fall from the ceiling and monster-masked performers to leap out from behind doors, this is not the show for you. What you get with Shivers is a performance in which the skill of the storyteller is key, allowing audience members to sink into the red velvet of their seats while their imaginations are manipulated with seemingly simple props, and a music score which tickles the nerves to a fever pitch. There were occasions during the performance where I jumped in my seat, but the real enjoyment came from being carried along by the slow build of tension, the constant circling of the storyline and the tight, clever use of voiceover to build on the skill.
Shivers has an age 14 guidance to it, making it more suitable for adults than children, and I felt that this performance was the ideal adult antidote to the crazy wave of noisy pantomime directed at younger audiences. It was perfect as a festive treat between frantic shopping and planning for Christmas, and a chance to thoroughly indulge the thrill of being frightened. A must-see production which is touring widely.
Photos by Barnaby Aldrick and Anthony Robling