Ghosts Aren’t Real is a comedy-horror play that hammers home themes of grief, mental health and spirituality while still managing to be laugh-out-loud funny. The brains (or should I say brain) behind it all is the producer and writer Jasper Dweck who wrote the play in the first lockdown of 2020. The idea of the play came to him after making a friend who lost both their parents at a young age. This springboarded the concept of ‘Ghosts Aren’t Real’, and after consulting with Camden Fringe superstar director Hannah Beach, it went into production and finally saw the light of day on Monday 5th September at the Etcetera Theatre in London.
As the play begins, we are introduced to our main protagonist Max, played by Zoe Aronson. She is a shy, lonely girl who we shortly learn is very, very haunted and I love the way this was portrayed. It had the typical cliches of phones ringing with no one on the other end, boxes and photographs being thrown off walls and flickering lights, but they were all executed so well that it felt more like a homage to the genre rather than a tired parody. It also had something to do with the impeccable sound design and music, all of which were arranged by just two people. It was eerie, nerve-wracking and, above all, was used sparingly with excellent timing. Not just in the intro, but throughout the entire play.
Aronson plays the ‘anxious young adult’ very well. She constantly checks that she has everything in her bag by muttering, “phone, keys, wallet” over and over and keeps sorting her hair out at every given chance. As a young person who also gets very overwhelmed by a task as simple as leaving the house, I connected with the character and knew exactly how she felt. Especially when she still ended up forgetting her keys just as she was about to leave.
As Max leaves her apartment we enter the other main setting for the play; a Chinese restaurant. The subtle use of ambient music you’d usually hear at one of these restaurants loomed in the background, bringing with it a sense of realism. About half the play takes place in this location, but at no point did I ever feel bored. This is mainly due to the dialogue between Max and our next character Vanessa, played by Rhonwen “Rhoni” Cash. Vanessa acts as Max’s date and plays the annoying, self-righteous vegan who believes in astrology. We all know one, and Cash was born to play this role. She brought witty facial expressions, a demeaning tone and excellent comedic timing. Vanessa’s character is summed up perfectly without a word being said, as she sits down at the table and instantly pulls her phone out to take a picture of herself. It gave the audience their first proper laugh, with many more to follow.
After some awkward silences, excruciating attempts at telling jokes and lots of disagreements about death and star signs, the scene builds up a tension you could cut with a bread knife. That tension is then dissipated by our comic relief, the waiter, played by Jasper Dweck. Dweck has comedic timing like no other, as he writes down and says aloud Max and Vanessa’s orders in a very drawn-out manner. Just when you think he’s finished writing down the menu item, he draws it out even longer and the way he did it left me in stitches, as well as the rest of the audience. It breaks up the animosity for a brief moment until it then builds back up again as Max talks about her dead father. This is key to the plot and I wish more time had been spent on this subject as it makes the ending of the show a lot more powerful.
Our third and final main character then intervenes when he hears of Max’s father’s passing and is convinced he can speak to him beyond the grave (if they pay the £400 fee, of course). This character is known as Jackson and is played by Tommy Moore. Jackson is a very over-the-top and obnoxious psychic who thinks he is excellent and everyone else is stupid. I found the part where he tries explaining to Vanessa how the spirit world is like a motorway with ridiculous analogies and metaphors particularly funny. However, there lies another layer to his character; the back-and-forth between him and Vanessa. One minute he’s acting super intelligent and wise in an attempt to woo Vanessa who is initially very interested in him, but sometimes overdoes it, leaving her feeling very awkward. It made for some funny remarks and cringeworthy moments, although it did die down slightly by the third act.
The waiter comes back halfway through the restaurant section and gives off a surprisingly thrilling scene that gives some insight into Max’s mental health and allows Dweck’s acting to shine. His physical and audible acting is superb, as he twists and horrifically contorts himself. It’s also one of the scariest parts of the play and had me on edge. Dweck also makes another appearance later on in the play as another character and delivers an even bigger scare, but it’s best left to be experienced.
These three main characters work off each other very well, especially when they reconvene at Max’s house to finally stamp out her ghoulish haunting in the third act. This section of the play is when the scares were hyped up a lot more, with a horrifying use of sound effects and a mask. The horror element is at its most potent towards the last 20 minutes of the play, achieved by minimal lighting, some torches and very nervous dialogue. The comedy aspect isn’t completely lost, however. Jackson’s obnoxiousness is ramped up when he tells Max to calm down after seeing a ghost, while simultaneously acting more petrified than anyone else. Vanessa’s character unfortunately isn’t used a great deal in this section of the play, until she starts to get a headache and is convinced a demon is inside her head. This part in particular threw me off as it ended up being near non-relevant, which is a shame as the performance by Rhoni Cash was probably the best she gave all night.
At the very end, we are left alone with Max delivering a sobering monologue that brings in the core themes of the show. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, feeling alone and not knowing how to fill that hole, and moving on from trauma, even nods to mental health (in particular schizophrenia) and how that can affect someone going through a similar thing. There’s even a surprise ending, but to spoil it in this review would be doing the show a disservice. However, what I can say is that it left me feeling a lot of different things, which is what I think this show was trying to portray. Grief is a messy thing and mental health is never straightforward, but when you give yourself a break for just 5 minutes then maybe you can shed some light on your own situation.
Overall, I had lots of fun with ‘Ghosts Aren’t Real’. While it left me scratching my head at a couple of scenes, it can’t be denied how funny and thought-provoking it was, and it even left me feeling a little spooked.
Ghosts Aren’t Real is showing every night at 6:30pm until 10th September
Etcetera Theatre Club
265 Camden High Street,
Above the Oxford Arms,
London NW1 7BU
Tickets can be purchased here.