Features Q&A and Interviews Published 24 February 2014

Telling Ghost Stories

Stewart Pringle talks to actor, writer, magician and Derren Brown's collaborator in chief, Andy Nyman, and Gentleman novelist, Jeremy Dyson, about the return of Ghost Stories to the West End.
Stewart Pringle

Jeremy Dyson loves Disneyland. Maybe that’s surprising, coming from a man who rode to fame as the elusive fourth passenger in the black-plumed calèche that was The League of Gentlemen, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Disney Land is awesome, for a start, but it also embodies the immersive, whole-body experience that Dyson and his partner in horror Andy Nyman are resurrecting in the gloomy chambers beneath the Arts Theatre café. Ghost Stories is back in the West End after an absence of more than a year and a half, ready to scare the living shit out of punters and divide the living shit out of critics all over again.

But back to Walt: ‘We see Disney as a role model’, says Nyman, ‘Disneyland in particular – people tend to be very cynical about it, about Disney as an organisation or what have you. But Disney himself is an extraordinary example of everything that we aspire to. Attention to detail, passion, believing in what you do, despite what anyone else might think. Just believing “this is what I do, this is what I want and this is right.”’

It’s a determination that’s stood them in good stead, and made Ghost Stories a truly surprising feature on the increasingly predictable landscape of the West End. While Nyman and Dyson are firm and genuine in their gratitude for the unwavering support they’ve received from everyone involved in the show’s journey. After all, it’s not every day that an all-out spook show hops, skips and jumps from Liverpool try-outs to a smash run at the Lyric Hammersmith and then onto the West End. A show that refuses to offer a blurb, poster artwork or star names, that asks audiences and critics alike to keep schtum about its secrets, lest foreknowledge nerf the ride.

For a play that tips its hat so deftly to its influences (once you’ve sat down in the auditorium, at least) there is something thrillingly original about Ghost Stories. As Nyman points out, there isn’t a lot of all-out horror on the UK stage: ‘They’ve been other plays that have touched those themes, you’ve had the odd Shakespeare production or you’ve had The Pillowman or The Weir, but they’re plays that function in a different way.’ ‘We wanted to be unapologetically genre.’, Dyson adds.

And given the lack of ‘genre’ theatre out there, unapologetic or otherwise, Nyman and Dyson have relied on the Lyric’s unwavering support of the project to see it on to its considerable success.

Nyman: ‘We had a wonderful experience with the Lyric. A wonderful, wonderful experience, and it’s all just been a testament to subsidised theatre, really. You know, it’s sort of perfect subsidised theatre, because it was there to give us the artistic freedom and support to do what we wanted without commercial pressures and then the upside of that is that they’ve then benefited from four years of reward. It’s a great model. Especially when you now look at how the Tories sort of peel away at the arts, which is shameful, and naïve too, I think.’

Dyson isn’t a performer, and he’s a quieter presence than Nyman, but both men are passionate and eloquent on the subject of their shared fascination with the history of horror cinema. Movies like Ealing Studio’s classic Dead of Night and the Amicus anthologies of the 1970’s have been an obvious influence on the show:

‘We both love those hidden gems,’ says Nyman, ‘stuff that looks sort of cheap and gaudy, actually hides deeper purpose. It’s what Scorsese calls ‘smuggling’, he always says that about the Lewton films, the 1940’s RKO B-pictures, and the whole thing with Val Lewton was that he was this very educated man, who used the fact that he was given free rein on these low budget horror movies to smuggle in all these deeper, more literary themes.’

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman

Though much of Nyman’s most famous early work was behind the scenes, writing shows and crafting illusions for Derren Brown, he’s now as well known from his leading role in brilliant improv-sit-com Campus. But it was his work as a magician that informed his approach to the veil of secrecy over the show’s contents.

‘Part of it, something I learned on Derren’s stage shows, was that you have to give them value for money and you have to give them a secret worth keeping. If you’re asking them to keep it, it has to be worth it! And those two things go hand in hand.’ Nyman understands that if the bump in the night is really just an actor in a long white sheet then all the threats and promises will come back to bite him pretty quickly, that no amount of clever promotion could conceal a damp squib of a show: ‘It comes at a cost, the warning. It comes at a cost of putting your heart on your sleeve and saying “this is what I’m setting out to do”. And it’s not in a cerebral way, we’re not talking about the fear of ideas, we’re talking about fear in the way a really out-there horror film talks about fear. We’re talking about grabbing them by the throat.’

And that’s not an easy job. The rumblings from downstairs on this final week of technical rehearsals signal the fine-tuning of a machine built to terrify. Neither Nyman or Dyson are under any illusions about the delicacy of the procedure:

Nyman: ‘We were reminded in the tech yesterday, of looking at this stuff when it’s not working and thinking ‘this could be the thread that unravels everything.’ And that can be really frightening, when you’re in that moment. But the truth of it is that it’s incredibly exciting, because it’s only in that place that there’s proper risk.’

Horror timing, it’s like comic timing, and few people can understand that better than Dyson: ‘There’s no coincidence that a lot of comedy people also like horror’, he reflects. ‘I think the rhythms of it are the same, the way you build tension and then get the catharsis. And there’s the fact that it’s visceral. A belly laugh is something visceral. Andy’s got this theory that one of the reasons critics don’t like horror, or broad comedy, is because they have to cede control. It does it to you whether you want it or not. Great comedy you can’t help but laugh, and with a great scare you can’t help but jump.’

The scares will be closer than ever this time around, as Ghost Stories box of tricks is crammed into the cosy 350-seat Arts Theatre. It may look like a downgrade from the Duke of York’s, but with a show that relies so heavily on claustrophobia and immersion, it may well be a blessing. That’s certainly how Dyson is thinking about it: ‘It’s more enclosed, more intimate – you’re much closer to the stage here, wherever you are in the auditorium. And that’s exciting, because it’s going to make it more intense, I think. There really is nowhere to hide.’ It’s hard to deny that the show packed more of a punch in the Lyric than the Duke of York’s, despite the handful of new surprises that had been thrown in, so there’s every chance this latest run could prove to be definitive.

Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Dyson stresses the huge role his team plays in bringing the horrors to life, from director Sean Holmes to sound designer Nick Manning, whose mastery of the latest sound technologies has been vital for the creation of the show’s atmosphere of creeping, dreadful inevitability: ‘Sound’s one of those areas that technology has moved on so much in the last decade. You can do so much now that you wouldn’t be able to do with cruder equipment. And with something like this it’s brilliant, it works on so many levels; on an obvious level with what you can consciously hear, and on a subliminal level. The subliminal stuff Nick does is very effective, it’s happening all the time without you even noticing it.’

And we’re back to Disneyland. We’re back to the sweaty-palmed anticipation of the winding, cobwebbed queue into the Haunted Mansion. We’re back to creating that cohesive, ride-like experience using every narrative, technical and promotional trick the Ghost Stories team can pull. The Arts Theatre will be getting its own theme-park makeover over the coming week, but as with so much surrounding this production, the details of that are best kept secret.

Similarly clandestine are the details of the long-awaited Ghost Stories movie, which they’re hoping will finally go in front of the cameras next year – the delay apparently a factor of their wish to keep the film free from precisely the kind of commercial pressures their experience with the Lyric allowed them to avoid.

And after that? Are there any plans for a Ghost Stories 2, as has been regularly predicted online?

‘We are going to do another theatre show,’ Dyson smiles, ‘but we aren’t going to tell you any more than that.’

After all, that would spoil the surprise.

Ghost Stories is at London’s Arts Theatre from 13th February 2014.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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