Venue: York Theatre Royal
Director: Katie Posner
University of York alumnus Jessica Fisher’s new play Ghost Town is set in the claustrophobic confines of the Theatre Royal’s studio space, immersing the audience from the start in the play’s sinister atmosphere and powerful evocation of what it’s like to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The audience have to file in past a teenage girl, Megan, who’s lying unconscious on a beach, represented sparsely but effectively by a large piece of driftwood set in sand and an ambient soundtrack of waves and quavering strings. Megan’s friend Joe, who’s run away from home, and Keira, a character only he can see, circle around her as Fisher’s sparse and tense dialogue circles around the menace of the situation. “There’s blood on it”, Joe gasps, reluctantly picking up Megan’s bag.
The play then smoothly segues into the past, as Joe helping Megan to her feet switches to them wrestling on the beach. Jill McAusland’s warm, cocky performance as Megan serves to keep the play’s intensity grounded, and although she is weaker at conveying the character’s underlying vulnerability, her friendship with the more cautious Joe is likeable and believable. Fisher has worked extensively in theatre for young people and it shows in her dialogue, which captures teenager talk without sounding overdone.
If Joe’s friendship with Megan is a case of opposites attract, Keira is his twisted double. She embodies his unnamed but tormenting OCD and the terror it brings him of harming others, which Fisher evokes in brutally straightforward language. “Kill a kitten or pull off a puppy’s head”, Keira threatens.
Sheila Atim plays the character with a striking and complex presence. She sprawls predatorily on the driftwood as she watches Joe, or cradles him in her lap and hums a lullaby, symbolising the deceptive consolation of OCD and the certainty it provides. Damon Idris’ response to interacting with her is powerful, almost painful to watch, as Joe’s fear and confusion is evident in everything from his panicky gasps to the way he constantly knots his fingers together.
Unfortunately, the play struggles to wed all this intensity to a narrative structure. The explanation of where Joe and Megan have come from and what they’re doing on the beach is withheld for too long and the solution is too straightforward, making it feel less suspenseful than confusing. Megan and Joe’s relationship offered a memorable evocation of how devastating OCD is, grounded in a convincing human story rather than an ‘issues play’. I just wish that Ghost Town had been brave enough to focus entirely on that relationship and leave the attempts at a context hidden in the sea fog.