Ten years ago, when the scarifying stage play Ghost Stories was set to make its debut at the Liverpool Playhouse, the show’s co-writers, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, announced to journalists that they couldn’t really tell them anything about it. That certainly made the show difficult to write about, but the effect of this oblique, mysterious approach became clear. Audiences arrived knowing nothing about what was in store other than the fact the publicity carried a warning about ‘moments of extreme shock and tension’. Then, as they left at the end, nerves duly jangled, they’d hear an announcement asking them to keep the secrets of Ghost Stories from others.
The show became a hit, going on to run in several London theatres and spawning a feature film version in 2018. Now it’s out on its first-ever UK tour, touching down at the Lowry in Salford on February 18 and other northern venues later in the run. Speaking to Northern Soul, Dyson says: “We’d always wanted to tour it. We knew that people wanted to see it who hadn’t been able to get to London, so we were quite passionate about the idea of taking it round the country to people.”
A decade after Ghost Stories was first staged, potential audiences may have seen the film version, and the ubiquity of social media makes it quick and easy to spoiler potential audiences. Nevertheless, Dyson remains steadfastly determined to – like that announcement says – keep the secrets.
“The remarkable thing is, when it comes to the stage play generally, it’s still very hard to find out exactly what it is. People do seem to abide by and honour that request, which is remarkable to me and Andy. We never would have thought that would be the case, but it is very hard to find out what happens in the show, and the experience of the show and the arc of the show is very different to the film. Having knowledge of one doesn’t let you know that much about the other, I would say.”
This writer can bear witness to being at the show’s original press night at the Liverpool Playhouse with a genuine frisson of fear and excitement, knowing literally nothing about what was to come. “That’s still the same,” Dyson says. “You definitely get an audience coming in and going, ‘well, what is it? What’s going to happen?’ It is intended to wrong-foot you in that sense, so it’s good that that is the case still.”
Needless to say, we’re not about to reveal any spoilers here. In Dyson’s own words: “If you like this kind of thing, you will be thoroughly entertained. It is quite a unique experience. There’s not really anything like Ghost Stories. It’s designed to be a roller-coaster ride. It’s 82 minutes long on average, no interval, so you get on and you’re on that ride and then you come off at the end and you’ll come out hopefully laughing and smiling and you’ll have had a great night.”
As well as co-writing the show with life-long friend Andy Nyman, Dyson co-directed the original production with Nyman and Sean Holmes. The team has reunited for this new production. But does Dyson remember the moment back at the beginning when it first became clear that the show would work?
“Oh yeah, absolutely, in a very concrete and tangible way. At the Liverpool Playhouse we’d had quite a ropey dress rehearsal. Bless her, Gemma Bodinetz, the artistic director, had watched it and she said ‘well, it’s interesting, it’s fascinating and compelling…but it’s not scary’. And of course, that was the one thing it had to be, so we were devastated. We sat up all night kind of going through ‘why isn’t this working, why isn’t that working?’. We tried to fix things, but we had no idea if it would work until when the actual paying audience came in. Then I was sat next to Sean Holmes at the back of the auditorium, in the stalls, and the first moment that was designed to elicit a scream got this massive shriek. Me and Sean just gripped each other’s legs like teenagers, going ‘aaaah!’. It was the most exciting thing – ‘oh God, it might just work!’.”
It was Nyman who had suggested putting the warning about ‘moments of extreme shock and tension’ on the show’s publicity, and there was a point there when Dyson thought that might sink them.
“I can remember at that ropey dress rehearsal thinking ‘oh, Andy, why did you make us put a warning on it?’. If it didn’t have a warning on it, we could’ve got away with it being quite clever, but it meant there was nowhere to hide because we’d sold it on the idea that it was going to be scary. Which was great, actually – the fact that there was nowhere to hide made us do that work.”
That warning operates as equal parts genuine cautionary message and pure old-fashioned showmanship. “Yeah, it’s exactly the same principle as when you’re stood in the line at the theme park and you get those warnings at regular intervals if you’re pregnant or you have a heart condition or about not standing up. Then again, the show is also quite an intense experience, so if you are of – as they used to say – ‘a nervous disposition’, then you probably would want to avoid it.”
This new touring production of Ghost Stories isn’t exactly the same show as before, though. The publicity promises that it’s a ‘fully polished, expertly tweaked, 20 per cent scarier version’, but naturally, Dyson fights shy of detailing precisely what’s new. “If you’ve seen it before in one of its previous incarnations, there are new things in this. Certainly, if you’ve only seen the film, it’s a completely different experience and it’s definitely worth seeing as a companion piece. It’s not the same thing. Although it is basically the same story, tonally it’s quite different. The film’s quite melancholy in a way that the play isn’t. The play’s much more energetic, I think. But there are perhaps scares that land in a way that they didn’t quite land in its last stage version. There’s definitely a few surprises in there.”
What’s made the show tourable now is a tweaked design that enables the set to be transported more easily (Dyson makes careful, coded reference to the staging of a particular scene’s conclusion having been rethought) but over the years productions of Ghost Stories have sprung up all over the world.
“The play’s had the most insane international life that we would never have anticipated in a million years,” Dyson says. “It’s been in Shanghai three times now. Peru, Moscow, the Scandinavian countries. In fact, there’s a tour of Holland at the moment. It’s not a replica production, it’s their own reimagining of it. Just before Christmas we went over to see it thinking ‘what is it going to be like?’. And it was weird, because it was a completely different thing. It still worked for an audience, but it was like a 70s art house theatre version of the play. They’d kind of made something else of it. It’s been most unexpected that that’s happened.”
“For it to have this extraordinary life has been the most unexpected and joyous thing. It’s occupied most of the decade for me, creatively. Once we’d started thinking about the film it took, as films do, many years of fairly constant effort to make happen, and that was three or four years of being on it. Actually, the other remarkable thing is not being sick of it, because we’re not. We love it. But what’s nice is that we have just finally finished, another film script that isn’t Ghost Stories, it’s an original screenplay, and we have another play ready as well. It is nice now to think ‘ah yes, we can do another thing’ – or please God we can.” Of these new Dyson/Nyman projects, Dyson will say only that, in comparison to Ghost Stories, “they are genre, but they’re different”.
It’s worth stressing that, when they were first putting Ghost Stories together, Dyson and Nyman had a large sign in their writing room emblazoned with the single word ‘FUN’. Sure enough the show walks that fine line between terror and delight. Each horrified shriek of the audience is followed, seconds later, by a laugh of relief. “Because everybody’s sharing that anticipatory anxiety of ‘ooh, what’s it going to be?’, everybody warms to each other because they’re all in in the same boat. It’s a lovely communal thing that’s very enjoyable to sit in the midst of and experience.”
Ghost Stories is at the Salford Lowry from February 18-22, 2020. For more information or to book tickets, click here.
Subsequent venues on the 2020 UK tour include York’s Grand Opera House, Liverpool Playhouse and Sheffield Lyceum.