We catch up with Damian Sandys, director of The Poltergeist of Cock Lane, in the days leading up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Poltergeist of Cock Lane runs at C Venues from 2 – 12 August 2017. For more information about the show click here.
How did you come on board?
“I worked with Steven on some shows last year. He floated the idea around and I actually had my first serious production meeting about it the day after I returned from last year’s Edinburgh festival! I had literally got off the train about 12 hours earlier (and I was still a little delirious from it all!) but then I found myself already planning for the next year, which was quite a lovely thing at that point. So it has just been just under a year. Since then we have reduced the show to an Edinburgh-friendly version. We have cast it, made adaptations for that, gone through previews and it’s taken a huge journey across that year but it’s been a very exciting one and it’s been lovely to have it so slowly bubbling away, which makes it now very exciting to have got here in just a few weeks.”
What drew you to the show?
“The premise of the show is so intriguing. It sounds so outlandish and crazy and yet this is an event that actually happened! So automatically it sets up so many questions in your mind. Then when I looked at it further, the book had so much detail and unexpected wit in it for what could be just a very dark, sinister thing. It does have those elements in it, but it does have a lighter side to it as well. The music is incredibly catchy and beautiful. But the moment when I really latched onto it was the moment I started to picture it and I immediately saw it as a smaller chamber piece than in fact the script suggested. And one of the delights has been making it much more of an ensemble piece and fleshing out that side of it.”
Why will fringe audiences like it?
“Because of the story, I think. It creates a very chilling atmosphere. And there’s this wonderful sense of “whodunit” – it’s a bit like a musical version of Broadchurch! And trying to create your opinions and weigh up the evidence, which is always rather satisfying as an audience member. On top of that I think the music goes round and round your head, so I think both of those will appeal. It’s also the kind of show that can appeal to a huge age span and I think that’s brilliant for the Fringe. It doesn’t exclude anyone, it should be fun for all!”
If you could compare it to other shows, what would you relate it to?
“That’s a very hard question! In one sense, it’s quite sweeping and epic. However, I think it’s a really personalised story and it’s a very intimate tale. I don’t know what I would compare it to, I find it quite unusual and original. I guess it has elements of laughing and crying, it has a heart, it has comedy, it has truth – so all the things you would equate to Sondheim in certain ways, Stiles and Drewe in certain ways but I don’t think it falls into any particular category like that which is really nice actually.”
Do you have a favourite song, moment or scene?
“There is a song called Questioning a Poltergeist and that is always a brilliant moment for me. I feel like that stakes are very high, the drama is starting to really unfold and it’s one of my favourite songs. It’s always one that I’m singing along with! And I’m very proud of the staging of that one as well. I’m also hugely fond of the ending of the show. I find it very rewarding and chilling. There are some really gorgeous harmonies. It’s one of those moments where the story, the music, the lyrics and the characters fuse together and create something very magical.”
How is directing an Edinburgh show different to directing shows in other contexts?
“I think in Edinburgh you’re always conscious of a few things – you’re conscious of time pressures, that the average audience member has a very packed schedule. They don’t want things much longer than an hour. So every minute, every second has to count, you can’t waste time. So you’ve really got to think about the momentum of the story and how you’re telling it. There’s also budget constraints and technical constraints with very short get-ins and get-outs and limited technical capabilities. You’re looking at the show in its purest form really, and going “what do we need to tell this story?” as opposed to “what do we want?” And actually rather than that being a restriction, I actually find it really wonderful – it’s a huge trigger to creativity. It would be very easy to deck things out with a lot of scenery and a lot of props but actually what the Edinburgh Fringe does is force you to think about it in a different way and how you can create the same effects but with very little. It’s very much about creating something out of nothing. That’s something that I really love as a director.”
What is your experience of the Edinburgh Fringe so far and why are you going back?
“The Edinburgh Fringe is mental but in such a brilliant way. I have done 14 years at the festival and this summer I am doing my 37th, 38th and 39th Edinburgh shows! My first experience was in 2001 when I was leaving university and the theatre company we had there decided to do one final fling. We went up having never been before and absolutely loved it. We had a great time, lost a lot of money but we kind of learned how the festival operated. And I remember being up there and saying “I have to come back next year!” and I just did 12 years in a row and then had a couple of years off. But every year everything got bigger and better – I started doing more than one show a year! I love it because it’s so intense and it’s so crazy but for two months you get to have the most amazing time creating shows from scratch, creating new shows, spending time in a place where there’s every type of show possible. You see shows that you would never dream of going to see elsewhere and some of them are the best things you’ve ever seen. You spend a month with such like-minded people and there’s just this huge bubble – I call it the “Edinbubble” – you’re so oblivious to everything else that’s going on in the world outside. But you see the most amazing shows, get to know brilliant people – some of my closest friends have come from Edinburgh, there’s a brilliant atmosphere, there’s so many friendly faces, people that just want to discover new and unusual theatre. That is the thing actually, I very rarely go and see shows that I’ve seen before. I’m always looking for new things, challenging my own expectations. I think you learn so much from being there.”