2:22 - A Ghost Story
An Interview With the Playwright, Danny Robins
Ellis Reed catches up with Danny Robins about his West End play, 2:22 - A Ghost Story, which premieres at the Noël Coward Theatre on the 3rd of August...
Ghosts are rarely seen in modern theatre. This isn’t just sad but surprising; they do, after all, have a long theatrical pedigree. There were some notable ones in Shakespeare – his ‘Scottish play’ is very nearly a Hallowe’en special – and Pepper’s Ghost was, for a time, the toast of Victorian London. In comparison, today’s entertainments are relatively spook-free.
There are exceptions, of course, like The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories. Soon to join them, though, is 2:22 – A Ghost Story. It’s a chilling new play by Danny Robins, directed by Matthew Dunster, that’s about to launch at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End. The spine-tingling press release describes it as follows:
‘There’s something in our house. I hear it every night, at the same time.’
Jenny (Lily Allen) believes her new home is haunted, but her husband Sam (Hadley Fraser) isn’t having any of it. They argue with their first dinner guests, old friend Lauren (Julia Chan) and new partner Ben (Jake Wood). Can the dead really walk again? Belief and scepticism clash, but something feels strange and frightening, and that something is getting closer, so they’re going to stay up… until 2:22… and then they’ll know.
This edge-of-your-seat, supernatural thriller takes you into one adrenaline-filled night where secrets will emerge and ghosts may appear… What do you believe? And do you dare discover the truth?’
For horror fans, the setup is delicious, combining the classic haunted house with a countdown to doom – or, at the very least, one heck of a climax. Scares normally happen in the dark, so usually, relief comes from the daytime scenes, when characters visit a priest or read up on local history. 2:22 sounds like it takes place on a single unbroken evening, which could make for a real white-knuckle ride. In either case, whether the night described is the final act or the whole play, we can’t wait to see it.
Regular readers will know that 2:22 isn’t Danny Robins’s first rodeo. He also created the BBC Sounds podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist, which the Guardian described (quite rightly!) as ‘hugely entertaining’. Before that he hosted the Haunted podcast, which saw him investigate the ghost of a racing driver, the restless spirit of an American soldier, and several other reported hauntings. Outside of his supernatural interests, he co-created Radio 4 shows Rudy’s Rare Records and The Museum of Everything, as well as BBC1’s Young Dracula. He also presented BBC3’s The Bullsh*t Detective, in which he exposed fake psychics. We took the opportunity to ask him some questions about 2:22, which will play from 3 August to 16 October 2021.
Ellis: You told the Guardian that you’ve always been ‘obsessed’ with ghosts. Can you remember your first experience with the idea of them? As someone who’s written a ghost story: what are your oldest and most enduring inspirations?
Danny: I think a big part of my interest in the supernatural stems from being brought up in an entirely belief-free house. My Mum was raised Catholic but became a devout atheist. When we went to visit my Grandparents I was fascinated by their slightly creepy religious paintings and the idea there might be some other layer of existence – life after death… Some people might have got religious but I found spooks… I’m sure like many people, the school library copy of the Usborne book World of the Unknown: Ghosts was an early influence. I was intrigued reading about people who claimed to have actually seen ghosts. I absolutely love the convention of the ghost story in film, TV, audio and literature, and could reel off a whole list of inspirations like Hammer films, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a childhood trip to see The Woman in Black at the theatre, E Nesbit’s collection Horror Stories and of course Stephen Volk’s legendary Ghostwatch, but for me, the deepest interest has always lain in real ghost stories – the accounts of ordinary people because they hold that possibility that that other layer of existence might actually be real. I suppose what I have done in my work is taken those real stories and told them using the literary conventions of the books and films I have loved.
E: What can you tell us about 2:22 beyond the press release, and what excites you most about getting it before a live audience?
D: Everyone will assume I was inspired to write this because of the success of The Battersea Poltergeist, but it’s actually the other way round. 2:22 inadvertently inspired Battersea. I had the idea for the play about five years ago. I wanted to examine the clash between belief and scepticism through the prism of a couple and their relationship. I had a friend around that time who’d told me she’d seen a ghost – describing it in very vivid, concrete and believable terms, and I remember being struck by the thought that within our social circle there would be people who would not believe her and who would perhaps even laugh at her, and I thought what would it be like if the person doing that was your partner? That would have major ramifications for your relationship. That’s how the play was born.
Anyway, I started doing some research by doing a shout-out on social media asking if anyone had had any ghostly experiences they wanted to share and I found myself being sent some amazing stories. I very quickly thought, yes, this is useful for my play, but there’s also something more to this – these stories deserve to be told in their own right, so I came up with the idea for my podcast series Haunted, which then eventually led me to make The Battersea Poltergeist, so you could argue that my spooky podcasting career has its roots in 2:22! Getting the play finally out into the world has been a much longer process, thanks largely to Covid, so I’m just phenomenally excited to share it now – it’s a labour of love that I’m very proud of and I think if you enjoyed Battersea Poltergeist or Haunted, you’ll feel it occupies the same universe in terms of its themes and its approach to the idea of ghosts. Fundamentally though, I’m hoping it will be a really cracking night out at the theatre – something we all need after this terrible last couple of years.
E: Horrified readers will already be familiar with spooky plays like The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories. What are your own experiences of horror on stage? Are you a fan as well as a creator?
D: I really enjoyed both of those plays. I love being scared. As a kid growing up, I was really immersed in theatre, performing it through my local amateur theatre group The People’s Theatre in Newcastle and the National Youth Theatre. I was this precocious theatre buff who was going to watch the RSC aged 7! As an adult, I moved into other media – TV and radio, but I always hoped I’d be able to return to working in theatre. I wrote a couple of other plays in recent years that were more comedic, but I definitely felt a really strong desire to do something scary in the theatre. I think there is a really special thrill to sitting in a theatre and being scared. Perhaps it’s because it’s harder to forget your surroundings – you’re aware you’re sitting in a crowd of people in an auditorium, so if something can really make you lose your shit then it must be really powerful!
I think one thing I did notice watching both The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories was the effectiveness of blending comedy into the scary – people’s instinct after being frightened is to try and laugh it off, so the two can really work together – each one helping and emphasising the other. I did a show at the Edinburgh Fringe a long time ago with my old writing partner Dan Tetsell called Live Ghost Hunt – it was a spoof of a Most Haunted-style show, back in the days when those kinds of paranormal TV shows were a new phenomenon. It was very much a comedy show but still managed to be scary. All of those experiences, both watching and performing have has fed into 2:22 – it’s a drama, a psychological thriller, and definitely scary but it is also (I hope) a play that will make you laugh out loud.
E: 2:22 is being directed by Matthew Dunster. How closely involved are you with the production? What’s the working relationship like, between you as writer and all the creatives who bring the script to life?
D: Writing a play is an emotional journey. It is a bit like having a child, you’re there for so long, watching it develop, nurturing it, and then there comes a point when you have to wave it goodbye and watch it grow without you, as the director and actors take it on and make it theirs. So, I’ve been involved in the casting process, I’ve had a fantastic relationship with Matthew getting his notes and thoughts through the final stages of writing, and I have been in and out of rehearsals making the odd tweak to the script, but really it’s now about the actors and Matthew bringing this thing to life. It’s fantastically exciting and quite moving watching your baby walk and talk!
E: Julian Simpson (who created The Lovecraft Investigations) has said, ‘I’ve always found ghost stories to be much scarier in audio.’ Do you sympathise with that position? 2:22 features sound design by Olivier award-winner Ian Dickinson, so does audio play a big part in the production?
D: I think audio is a brilliant medium for scares. You can really get inside people’s heads. Julian and his sound designer David Thomas do that brilliantly on The Lovecraft Investigations. On The Battersea Poltergeist, we wanted to create something that could terrify you whilst you were standing doing the washing up or sitting on a Tube or out jogging – there’s an intimacy to the scares. With 2:22 we’re obviously doing something different, it’s a bigger stage, public not private in the way that your relationship with your headphones is, but as you’ll see if you come to watch it, sound is absolutely crucial to the play – it plays a huge role, in fact, you could say it’s almost another character in the play, so to have someone of Ian’s calibre doing our sound design is amazing. He’s full of great ideas and really gets the potential of sound to create ‘horror’ on stage. Prepare to be scared by not only what you see but what you hear…
E: When it comes to believing in ghosts, you once said, ‘Sometimes I feel it’s as binary as Brexit.’ You have a bit of history as a sceptic (especially when it comes to mediums!) but some ghost stories have given you pause for thought. Why do you think it’s such a divisive question? If you had to bet a million pounds on ghosts being real or not… which way would you gamble?
D: I believe ghosts exist. People see them all the time. My interest lies in what they are and whether they are the product of our human minds, our environment, or actually something ‘supernatural’ – the dead rising again, or some type of energy we don’t yet understand. I think there’s a tendency now more than ever for people to take entrenched positions and define themselves as much by what they don’t think as what they do, so yes, ghost belief has become binary. At one end of the spectrum, we have sceptics so sceptical even the mere mention of the word ‘ghost’ has them fuming, and on the other end people who believe that the slightest creak of a floorboard is evidence for the existence of an afterlife. I think both of those groups do a lot to put off the average person from admitting they think they might have seen a ghost. Because if my research has taught me anything, it’s that there are a surprising amount of people out there like my friend who inspired 2:22 – people who don’t really believe in ghosts but do believe they have seen one. Those are the stories that set my pulse racing… Suddenly I’m that little boy again in my grandparents’ house, contemplating that other layer of existence! I don’t know whether I have really answered your question there or not, but essentially, the idea that ghosts might be real is what drives me to make the programmes I do – it feels like a fantastic adventure, a detective story where we can all play sleuth! I hope if people come and see 2:22 it will spark plenty of conversations in the pub afterwards about whether ghosts exist or not – it’s much more fun than debating Brexit!
Many thanks to Danny Robins for taking the time to answer our questions. You can book tickets for the 2:22 – A Ghost Story here.