Originally intended as a fireside performance in Liverpool as part of Fuel’s nationwide series of storytelling events, Headlong’s Signal Fires, The Ghost Caller is now (pretty aptly) available on phones. This may initially feel like another instance of mere substitution as theatre is once again forced online, but what unfolds is a beautifully simple performance that’s interactive, thoughtful and highly emotional. If you’re feeling fatigued by more livestreams, it brings performance to life at home, rather than sealing away a stage behind the TV screen.
The set-up is fairly simple, if not a little shrouded by the texts received when the listener originally texts Headlong’s given number. Find a quiet place, bring a coin, close your eyes… it all feels pretty ominous to gear up for the arrival of a ghost (for the record, I can’t say I’m a huge believer in ghosts except for when I’m actively engaging with a piece about ghosts. Maybe it’s just me but a reviewer surely should go into a piece of art ready to immerse themselves, rather than with a pretty Blythe disregard for a show’s basic premise). However, there’s a level of bravery felt as you dictate when you are happy and prepared to receive your call. Rather than the theatre choosing the performance time, the listener does. This far more active participation breeds anticipation- you have chosen the unknown, rather than being your friend’s plus one to it.
This dictation is of course a sign of the show’s adaptation from its original fireside, group setting. Perhaps being outdoors would convey more of the natural unknowableness of the universe, but sat cross-legged with a coin in front of me (heads, a result I continue to get another five times) feels all rather séance-like (the five heads probably didn’t help, to be honest). This is a likeness that the caller actively rejects when they speak with you. Luke Barnes’ script is keen to address this as early as possible, subverting the usual expectations of summoning a ghost the week after Halloween. The story is in fact far more closely linked to All Saints’ Day, a pondering on lives lost – from a lost life.
Regardless of the result from the coin you toss (heads or tails merely decides the voice of the caller), the piece is a carefully considered and incredibly emotive final call from a loved one – or an estranged friend, or somebody you barely knew. This invitation to the audience to set the level of familiarity and closeness again is a brilliant way to offer the stakes to the individual. It’s not an invitation to take lightly: you’re choosing your own personal ghost, a choice that could well cause some distress. It’s worth taking the plunge though, and opening yourself up to pondering on a loved one. Both performers give the piece their own angle: David Morrissey’s gruff and matter of fact, Leanne Best almost apologetic for bothering you at this time of night. Again the new format aids the casting of two fairly prominent Liverpudlian actors. There’s no double-take, no nudging your friend, no quietly wondering what TV show you’ve seen them in. The audio lends an anonymity that makes these voices an even clearer canvas for the audience’s own grief.
I don’t want to deter you with all this grief chat: rest assured, there is a hopeful note to leave you on. All the same, at a time where once again the majority of the public can’t see their loved ones, this is an incredibly strong and heartfelt piece of theatre. It’s exactly what we need right now, a frank connection with those who’ve shaped us however imperceptibly- though maybe the National Theatre at home was a little cosier, this feels so much more real.
The Ghost Caller is available to listen to until 19th November. More info here.