Hayton on Homicide began with an e-mail. In October 2007, Emma from the Cambridge Librarians contacted me about providing a performance for their Christmas party at King’s College. I got all excited – until she went on to say that what they wanted was a reading of an M.R. James ghost story. James used to introduce his new story each year at a Christmas gathering at King’s, so it was a good idea for them – but what could be in that for me? I’m a writer, director and producer, but I’m not a performer. Every time I get up in front of an audience I get gut-churning flashbacks to the Karate Incident. The Karate Incident, if you must know, involved a badly tied Gi, a distressingly transparent bra, and me. The rest I leave to your imagination. May it haunt you as it has haunted me.
Nevertheless I loved the idea of doing something at the college (plus it was three months til Christmas and I needed the money). So I suggested that I provide an adaptation of one of James’s stories as a staged reading. Emma was really chuffed by this idea, and said yes.
I picked Casting the Runes – the one about the evil alchemist Karswell who cursed anyone who gave one of his papers a bad review – because it had two quite good female characters. Most of James’s stories don’t have any – maybe something in a mob cap with a country accent – and what fun could you have with that? And we did have fun with the adaptation. I changed Harrington’s brother into a sister, so she could bewitch and bewilder the scholarly Dunning, I had the fantastically gaunt and grim John Parry stalking the stage as Karswell, but mostly we all enjoyed the relationship of Mr and Mrs Gayton (Robert Jezek and Sarah Kenyon), who began the play by bickering over the Karswell’s threatening letters. After the performances (which went down a treat) we all felt sad to say good-bye to the Gaytons, who’d made us laugh with their combination of well-mannered Victorian affection and complete inability to agree on anything.
“You should write a play just about the Gaytons,” said Sarah.
So, with the change of a single letter, I did.