Writers: Jack Bradfield, Rosa Garlan, and Will Spence
Director: Jack Bradfield
In the past a site-specific perambulatory ghost walk around the city of London in the middle of December would involve a cast of actors freezing their socks off as they waited for the next batch of willing volunteers.
Mobile technology has changed all that. In Poltergeist Theatre’s Ghost Walk, produced by the New Diorama Theatre and starting just a stone’s throw from their NDT Broadgate complex, the actors’ delivery is audio-only and delivered via a smartphone app.
Juliet Stevenson plays Mary, a ghost who claims to have spent so long hanging around the area – which for the last couple of decades has been a financial hub – that she learned how to program and build the app, so that she could enlist the help of the living to contact some of the other ghosts in the area. Following a yellow spot on the app’s map, every time the listener reaches a certain landmark a new section of the play is automatically triggered as a new ghost talks about their fate.
Director Jack Bradfield’s script (co-written with Rosa Garlan and Will Spence) spans the centuries, starting with a builder (David Mumeni) who died during construction of Broadgate Circle, and including It’s a Sin’s Lydia West as a rebellious pop star who hangs out around the monument on the south side of Finsbury Circus.
At each stop of the tour, though, the lack of interactivity or, sometimes, even direct relevance to the location exposes the rather gimmicky nature of the GPS-related storytelling (although it has to be said, given how unpredictable phone location services can be in the built-up areas of the city, the app is both well put together and reliable).
What works best are some of the diegetic sounds introduced as one walks from location to location. An old phone box seems to spring to life, ringing as you walk past. Likewise, some old wooden doors on one side of the Bank of England creak and groan.
There are a few points where one walks past pubs and bars, city life flowing out into the streets. Mostly, though, the cold weather and the pandemic lend many of the streets on the play’s route an empty, haunting air that is perfect for ghost hunting.
But the physical sense of atmosphere does, at times, feel at odds with a generally comedic atmosphere of the writing. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Adam Buxton’s Roman soldier, forever marching up and down Throgmorton Street while talking in the broadest Cockney accent this side of EastEnders.
Once all the various stops on the walking tour have been reached, one returns to the Finsbury Circus start, retracing one’s steps for much of the way. While a more circular route might have allowed one to enjoy more of the centuries of history of this particular corner of London, revisiting some of the waypoints of the play’s opening moments allows some of the ghosts to re-emerge, allowing for a final scene back in Finsbury Square that unites all of the characters.
It’s a shame, then, that that conclusion feels like a remarkably low stakes finale. It is also the scene that most suffers from giving the audience nothing to do but stand around while they wait, in the biting cold, for the story to progress.
And that is a shame. The technology at work in Ghost Walk shows how far mobile technology has come in being able to support location-based storytelling; now it needs to find the compelling story it deserves.
Reviewed on 10 December 2021