There is something a little strange, a little spooky hitting theatres across the UK this year. Something that will expose your biggest fears and fill your every thought with dread and terror! Don’t worry – it’s not Brexit : The Musical; it is Ghost Stories!
From the twisted minds of the show’s creators, actor/writer Andy Nyman and writer Jeremy Dyson, the two lifelong friends have crafted an intense, sensory theatrical experience that will have hiding your face behind your hands and jumping out of your seat.
First performed over a decade ago, the production wowed audiences across the globe and was even turned into a film adaptation starring Nyman, as well as Martin Freeman and Paul Whitehouse. Such is the buzz about the show very little is known of the plot outside of those who have seen it and those that have, guard it’s secrets closely.
We caught up with co-writer Jeremy Dyson for a quick chat at the Lowry Theatre, just before it opens there on Tuesday 18th February.
Culture Vulture: Ghost Stories are prominent in literature and film, but not so much in the theatre, Why do you think this is?
Jeremy Dyson: Well it’s a good question. The golden age of horror films grew out of a wave of horror theatre. So, for instance, Dracula and Frankenstein in their film incarnations, were directly from very successful plays. In this country, lots of genre theatre fell out of favour from the 60s and 70s onwards when theatre got colonised by its more ‘artier’ end.
Because of subsidised theatre and horror being so popular, maybe it was looked down on and was less likely to be commissioned, that was probably part of it.
As well, when writing and staging it well, you’ve got to love it. It’s a bit like comedy; it’s hard to stage if you haven’t got ‘funny bones’ and Likewise if you haven’t got ‘scary bones’, it’s hard to put on one of these shows, so that might be part of it as well.
It does seem to be picking up a bit though since Ghost Stories. They started touring The Exorcist a few years ago and there was a production of the Haunting of Hill House at the Liverpool Playhouse. There is certainly more than there was before.
CV What made you want to do a horror play?
JD: It was a call from Andy Nyman. We’ve been pretty much best friends since the age of 15. We both have these independent careers: he is an actor and also works with Derren Brown. I’ve gone down the comedy path. He called me up out of the blue and said he’s got this idea for doing a spooky play with three men telling ghost stories sat on stools and would I be interested in looking at it.
Immediately I thought that would be a fun thing to do, in part because a few years before I saw Andy stage a fake séance. He stayed for a week at the house of detention in Clerkenwell in London (which was an old debtors’ prison). Andy and Professor Richard Weisman had staged a Victorian séance where the lights flickered; it was all done in the dark. It was brilliant: they did things I’ve never seen done before. Then I thought wouldn’t it be great to do a story creating the same atmosphere (sic).
So that’s where it was born. We started by sending each other our favourite stories and little bits that we’d written, so it grew quite organically. We pitched it to Sean Holmes who had just taken over the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. It was his first day in the job I think. Andy had worked there before and, because Sean is a brilliant director, he and Andy really got on. Andy started telling him about this thing we were working on and on the spot Sean said “right we’re doing it and it’ll be a year from today”.
I think he knew that was the only way it was going to happen because of how busy we both are. Him taking that leap of faith made us do it, which was the best thing and what a wonderful gift he gave us.
So that’s what happened when it came to writing; we did it quite quickly because we’ve been thinking about it for so long. We now had the script and what we wanted to do, but the atmosphere we wanted was found in the rehearsal studio at the Lyric and then on the stage at the Playhouse in Liverpool. In that extra week we found a lot on stage by playing with the lights; it was so much fun. League of Gentlemen aside, it’s the most fun I’ve had creatively, those two weeks of creating it on stage.
CV: What changes have you made for the new production?
JD (Laugh) I’m not allowed to say but there are changes. Each time we have staged it we’ve made little tweaks. There are always problems that niggled that we hadn’t quite got right, as you’re always up against the clock. There are a couple of big set pieces that are definitely done better because we know how to do them now.
CV: Did the film influence the new production?
JD: Yes definitely, there are moments from the film that have made it into the show. Coming back to it after the film has really made it more interesting.
CV: So it is basically still the same story?
JD: Yes there are no radical changes; it certainly isn’t Ghost Stories: the sequel. What’s interesting is we get a lot of people coming in again and again and again, who fall in love with it and want to experience the show again, because it is a real experience; it’s designed to be immersive. We want to take the audience on a proper ride and hopefully something they will respond to.
CV: Well this will be my third time watching it, what influences are in the production?
JD: Well it draws on lots of different things, all the things that we loved as kids. From when we first met. But then some of it was different for each of us. One of the lovely things about doing it in Liverpool the first time around was, for me, the stories of Ramsey Campbell, which were a huge influence on me; in fact it was Dark Companions that actually made me want to become a writer. He had a real impact on me and Ramsey came to see the production on the press night in Liverpool.
That was definitely in the mix for me, as well as several horror films. We definitely wanted to recreate the feel of a horror film on stage. We referenced Dead of Night in the film and in the play, and that was a big influence on the structure. So it was a real melting pot of influences, in fact it’s not even just horror stuff, we made a list of all the theatre that has stayed with us, going as far back as we could remember. We both love theatre and when it’s not great it’s the worst thing in the world, but when it’s good it’s just the best thing and there’s nothing more exciting; it’s one of those things that stays with you for life, and that fed into the process as well.
CV: Can you think of an example of great theatre?
JD: This may sound quite mundane but one of those first experiences I ever had was at secondary school. There was a play the staff used to put on every year, and that year they happened to do Dracula, and Mr Strath the English teacher, was a very good Dracula. There was a lovely little coup d’être of a bat flying into the auditorium over the audiences head and transforming into Mr Strath, they did it really well (laughing). They had a papier-mâché bat but I still laugh about it to this day, there is no question that that influenced me.
But then there’s the other end of the spectrum; I can remember going with Andy to see a production at the National of Fuenteovejuna that had the best opening with an empty stage . We were wondering what was going on, and then they all came out of the trapdoor in the middle of the stage, and this has stayed with me.
CV: With this being a collaborative effort, did you both have to agree what went into the play?
JD: On the play I can’t remember any of those moments, but when it came to the film it’s a completely different process and there’s so many different decisions – probably 100 times more on a film than a play. We had moments where I thought some scenes should be done a particular way and we negotiated with one another but it was never ill tempered; as always it was more in the spirit of play fighting.
CV: How difficult was it to make it such an immersive experience?
JD: Well it was a big unknown. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not, we were trying lots of different things and there were things that didn’t work. That first week in Liverpool was crucial and what was really scary is that the first dress rehearsal didn’t work at all! None of the scares were landing, which was distressing as we’d sold the show on it being scary!
Until you get that first audience in, it was a tense experience. At the previews, we tried to be honest with what was working and what wasn’t. It’s easy to forget that, with it being so long ago, but there was definitely a lot of trial and error. If you came to that first or second show, it is a lot different.
CV: How does it feel to take it on tour now?
JD: It’s been brilliant; we always wanted to take it on tour. Ridiculously, it was designed to to be taken out on tour, well at least it was in our heads, because of the small cast. It was only due to elements of the design that we couldn’t do it: the economics of it just didn’t work and then our brilliant set designer, John Balcer made some changes so it was possible and wouldn’t affect the audiences’ experience.
We are so excited because there are so many people that we met that asked when we were going to take it on tour; not everyone can go to London to see it. It’s brilliant that we’ve been able to do it. It’s the best version because we’ve been able to work on it over various incarnations so we are very happy with it.
CV: Who is in the cast this time?
JD: We’ve got Josh Higgot playing Professor Goodman, who is a terrific actor. We have Richard Sutton returning Mike Priddle; he played him at the Lyric and on the West End. We also have a lovely first time actor called Gus Gordon; it’s his first show and another lovely actor called Paul Hawkyard who is from Leeds, as I am, so it was a delight to cast him. So yes, it’s a really great cast.
CV: What can people expect from the show?
They can expect a thoroughly entertaining night out which is unlike anything else. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s a very different experience and you should seize the opportunity to come see the show. It’s a very singular night out and I guarantee you’ll be entertained!
CV: Thank you
Having seen the production twice, once in 2010 and 2014, I can safely say that fans of horror and being scared witless will love it. I personally cannot wait to see what new twists have been added. Genuinely, be warned, this isn’t for the faint hearted!
Ghost Stories is on tour from January to May at venues across the county.
Tickets available at: http://www.ghoststorieslive.co.uk/tour.html