The things that frighten us are as personal as the things that make us laugh, but I Used to Hear Footsteps digs down into what’s surely one of the most objectively frightening feelings there is: when you’re warm and comfortable and tucked up in bed and then, suddenly, you hear it. That sound. Is it footsteps out in the hallway beyond your door? Of course not, it can’t be. But…
Theatre-maker Jack Britton both writes and performs this surprisingly personal ghost story about his childhood home. His mum’s certain the Nottingham house they lived in during the 90s was plagued by restless spirits: Britton’s recorded a conversation between them and her voice recurs throughout the show, steady, measured, absolutely convinced.
Sometimes she heard footsteps. Sometimes things rolled across the floor and back again. Sometimes a draft – sometimes a presence – sometimes the mugs on the walls shook. It got worse when they started the loft conversion, worse until eventually, with his parents mid-way through a divorce, Britton’s family moved out – but they left more because of the divorce than the ghost.
It’s impossible to talk about your childhood home, which is also the place where your family as you knew it broke apart, without that being a deeply personal thing, but I can’t imagine a more delicately personal ghost story than Footsteps unless someone does a show next Fringe about being haunted by their own actual mum. Revisiting the building and speaking to the people who live there now, Britton collapses time, he himself as much a ghost for the families who live there as the ‘real’ ghost is.
How brief our lifespans really are. How small an amount of time a building or four walls that meant everything to us was really ours, because a home, like life itself, is only ever on temporary loan to us. The story grows more unsettling as you realise that every family who’s lived there since Britton’s has seen things, felt things – and through meticulous research, Britton shows us the death records and then the face of Harry Pegg, the man who built and lived and died in his house.
He draws a line between each of the families, explains how every couple that’s lived there since (and including) his parents has separated in that house, giving us a pattern of broken homes – and sat in the middle, the only un-disappointing father in the bunch, Harry, the one who built these houses for his children and now, it seems, won’t let them go.
It’s a technically complex, scientifically interesting look at ghost stories, with Britton by turns wanting his audience to be frightened, sceptical, believing and moved. It’s a big ask, and though Footsteps is interesting and smart, it struggles with multiple tricky technical elements (including a smudged, hard-to-read blackboard), although more because of how these affect Britton’s confidence and aplomb than because of how they affect the show’s flow in and of themselves. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating, even quite affecting evening with a brilliantly unsettling true story at its heart.