As Ghost Stories returns to terrify London audiences, and appears in print for the first time, its creators Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson explain how they came up with idea, and the inspirations they drew on.
Ghost Stories is a dream come true.
We met in 1981 at a Jewish summer camp called, appropriately enough, ‘Chai ’81’ (‘Chai’ being Hebrew for ‘life’). It was fate that threw together three kids from Leeds (including Dyson) and three kids from Leicester (including Nyman) into one cramped room for six. We were fifteen and within a couple of hours had discovered that we shared two mutual loves: dirty jokes and a burning obsession with Horror. We became best friends, and in the thirty-eight intervening years very little has changed.
Throughout our friendship we have constantly mused, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to actually work together?’, always meaning it, but somehow never quite finding the time. We’ve both remained busy, Jeremy as a writer and Andy as an actor. Our careers, and the practicalities of being freelancers with families, meant the realities of collaborating were beginning to feel like an impossible dream.
Then one day that all changed. Andy was in the West End of London and happened to walk past the Fortune Theatre, where The Woman in Black has been playing for almost thirty years. Andy was struck by a thought: how insane it was that there hadn’t been another horror play since that one had opened, almost as though such a thing wasn’t allowed.
Andy had also recently seen The Vagina Monologues in which the staging is remarkably simple – three women sit on three stools reading/performing the play directly from the script. The two experiences collided and Andy phoned Jeremy with this thought – ‘I think I know what we should work on together – a play, like The Vagina Monologues, but with ghost stories. Three men, sitting on three stools telling ghost stories.’ Jeremy loved the idea and we started to ponder.
The third essential cog in the machine was Sean Holmes. He and Andy had worked together on a play Andy had starred in (Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson); they’d loved working together and wanted to collaborate on something else. Andy casually mentioned the idea of the ghost-story play. A month later Sean became the Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, and his second phone call on his first day in the job was to Andy, to find out what was happening with ‘that ghost play’. A meeting was set for three days later.
Fortunately we’d been talking about it and thinking about it on and off for about a year, emailing each other fragments of our own writing and our favourite ghost stories by other people – so in some ways the earth had been tilled when we got together, prior to meeting Sean to draw up some rules of engagement:
- It had to be contemporary, so that it was as different as possible from The Woman in Black.
- It had to have a small cast to keep costs down.
- It should only be ninety minutes without an interval to keep the tension high.
- There should be no spoilers allowed at all, no plot given to press or indeed auditioning actors.
And finally, and most importantly:
- It had to be as frightening as the best modern horror film, with full ‘leap out your seat’ scares.
On 27 January 2009, we had the meeting and, incredibly, Sean and the Lyric commissioned the play, with us set to direct.
We were both busy for about six months with our own various commitments, but set a time when we could get started properly. Then on 19 July we finally sat down with four clear days to scratch out something concrete. The script had to be delivered on 1 October. The first thing we did was put a large index card on the wall. It said simply ‘FUN’, and it acted as an essential reminder both that the play itself should be entertaining and enjoyable, but also that the creative process wasn’t to be some terrifying daunting task, but was built around the simple joy of two lifelong friends finally coming together to do what they had talked about doing for over thirty years.
We set out with one very simple premise: what was the play we would most want to see ourselves? We started talking about our favourite moments from horror films, what made us laugh, scream and jump; but we also discussed what were the most memorable and impactful moments of theatre we could remember. The aspiration was somehow to combine both.
Very quickly the wall filled up with random thoughts and ideas, all disconnected but all born from the same place.
As we started to sift and shift these ideas into categories and sections, we realised that the ‘three men telling three stories’ idea had somehow shifted itself into a stage version of a cinematic phenomenon we both adored: the portmanteau horror film.
The incredible films of the production companies Amicus and Tigon in the 1970s, and their earlier 1940s Ealing Studios predecessor, Dead of Night, had shaped our childhoods – utterly British and yet fantastically global, full of deliciously playful scares that had creeped us out and stayed alive in our imaginations for decades. We knew, though, that we also wanted to craft a play that would deliver something of substance to an audience, some solid ground underneath the fun, that would leave a deeper, darker residue and be harder to shake off.
With that in mind, we asked each other a question: ‘Had you ever done anything in your life that you were truly ashamed of?’ The answers we gave would go on to shape both the individual stories and the overall plot in ways that were consistently surprising to us both.
* * *
Ghost Stories opened at the Liverpool Playhouse on 4 February 2010 before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith, and we truly had no idea what to expect. By now Sean had come on board as a third director, bringing a wealth of experience to help guide us through the technical rehearsals and first previews.
When the audience screamed for the very first time, it was one of the greatest moments of our creative lives. Something so unique and very special.
Wonderfully, the play performed to packed houses at the Lyric, and very swiftly transferred to the West End. It ran at the Duke of York’s Theatre for thirteen months – a fact that still makes us pinch ourselves.
Since then the show has been performed all over the world – Moscow, Sydney, Lima, Germany, Toronto, Shanghai, Norway, Finland and with many more international productions planned. We also adapted it for film, writing and directing it ourselves. It was released in cinemas in 2018 both in the UK and internationally to much critical acclaim. It also won us a Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best First Feature – a fact that would have made our fifteen-year-old selves explode with delight.
And here we are now, 2019, with the revival of Ghost Stories about to open at the Lyric Hammersmith, the final show of Sean Holmes’s artistic directorship there. Like the best dreams, as one looks back and reflects on what has happened, it feels impossible, ungraspable. So many stars have to align to create anything, let alone something that lasts and is still a living, breathing thing almost a decade after it was first conceived. No small part of Ghost Stories success lies in the enthusiasm and individual brilliance of our fantastic creative team who threw themselves into the challenge of bringing it to life with a zeal that matched our own: Sean Holmes, designer Jon Bausor, lighting designer James Farncombe and sound designer Nick Manning.
It fills our hearts with joy that so many people have seen the show and kept its secrets.
We wish you the sweetest of dreams.
The above is an edited extract from the introduction to Ghost Stories the playscript by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, out this week (4 April 2019), published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for £7.99 plus p&p (RRP £9.99), click here.
The play is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 11 May 2019 [extended until 18 May 2019].
Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson will be signing copies of the book at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore on Monday 8 April 2019, 6-7pm.
Author photo by Dan Wooller.