Chances are, if you ever watched TV, you’ve seen Ben Wood in action. He’s the archetypal Aussie everyman on ads for all kinds of things from utes, to auto parts, to superannuation, phones — and on it goes.
He’s also an accomplished stage actor, deploying that same strong masculine physicality in myriad outings, particularly for Bell Shakespeare. But for the past little while, Wood has been pretty quiet.
“I’ve got two young girls and those tours I’d been doing with Bell, and the other things, they just became a bit difficult with young kids so I pulled back a bit,” he says.
Then Ghost Stories came along.
Conceived in the UK and written by Jeremy Dyson (writer of offbeat cult sketch shows League Of Gentlemen and Funland) and Andy Nyman (who works closely with illusionist Derren Brown), the work uses theatrical techniques and illusion to create an innovative onstage horror story, with laughs along the way.
We can’t say too much though, because the many thousands of people who have seen it over a long West End run have been pretty good at keeping the secrets of the work, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the element of surprise.
“There’s a real shroud of mystery around the play,” says Wood’s fellow actor Tim Franklin of the production, which is being advertised as unsuitable for ages under 15 years and those of a nervous disposition, while pregnant women are urged to carefully consider their decision to attend.
“And everyone has taken on that Mousetrap (long-running Agatha Christie play famous for the mystery around it) vibe where nobody gives away the twists — it is really unlike anything we’ve seen on the Sydney stage,” adds Wood.
Indeed, the five-strong cast weren’t even given the script during the audition process and even as rehearsals began only had their relevant pages to look at. The show’s British director, Peter J. Snee, says casting production locally makes it that much more relatable and scary.
“The thing about this story is that it is very here and now, it’s very contemporary, very relatable and the powerful message is that what happens to our characters in the show could happen to anybody — to you or me at any time in our lives,” Snee says.
He also notes that comedy and horror are pretty comfortable bedfellows.
“Biologically, we laugh instinctively when things are funny and we scream instinctively when things are scary, we don’t make a conscious decision to do either of those things, so we make people really comfortable and then hit them with a fright,” he says.
Wood notes the enduring power of ghost stories in a world where we can pretty much know everything with a few taps of a keyboard.
“So the unknown still tickles our fancy and spikes our adrenaline; if we don’t know the answer immediately it becomes a concern to us.”
Ghost Stories, Drama Theatre, Opera House; July 8- August 15, $55-$85