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The legendary production of Susan Hill’s ghost story.
The Woman In Black, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the same-named gothic horror novel by Dame Susan Hill, is a classic ghost story first performed in 1989. It has since become one of the West End’s most successful plays.
Solicitor Arthur Kipp believes that his family has somehow been cursed by a mysterious woman in black. In an attempt to tell his story, and to exorcise the evil by which he feels threatened, he hires a young actor to assist him in recounting his experiences...
2pm & 7.30pm
The Woman In Black embarls on new UK tour...
Dame Susan Hill’s iconic ghost story, The Woman In Black, is brought to life in Stephen Mallatratt’s gripping stage adaptation, which embarks on a new UK tour this autumn. What’s On talks to the show’s director, Robin Herford, to find out why this chilling tale remains so popular with audiences everywhere...
The Woman In Black is one of theatre’s great success stories, playing London’s West End for more than 33 years, touring the globe and being seen by more than seven million people in the UK alone. And yet, when it was created in 1987, its director, Robin Herford, had no idea he would be working on a stage legend.
“It still amazes me,” he says. “I commissioned the play to be written for a three-and-a-half-week run in a studio theatre, and I really didn’t expect it to do much more than that.
“I was running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where Alan Ayckbourn is usually in residence. He had gone to the National Theatre for two years and left me to run it. I was terribly conscious not to muck it up, and one of the things I’d been told is that you’ve got to spend all of your grant because if you don’t use it all, you don’t get it next year. I found I had a little bit of money left over towards the end of my second year, so I thought ‘We’ll put on an additional show.’
“It was coming towards Christmas, and I thought we’d put on something for our loyal adult audiences. There was a kids’ show running in the main house in the mornings and the afternoons, so I thought we’d do a small show in the studio in the evenings; some kind of ghost story.”
Robin had recently read Susan Hill’s novel The Woman In Black, so he commissioned Stephen Mallatratt to adapt it for the stage.
“I was sort of thinking along the lines of A Christmas Carol, which is always popular at that time, but I didn’t really expect it to be so scary - that was the surprise. When people said ‘We were terrified’, I thought ‘That’s great!’”
The Woman In Black moved to London two years later and the rest is theatre history - but why does Robin believe the play has remained so popular?
“I think it surprises people and it unsettles them because it completely upturns your expectations. You come in, it’s all a bit spooky, you know a bit about it and you’re ready to be scared out of your wits. You’re sort of on edge - and then it doesn’t happen as you expect.
“A man wanders on, the lights go on to half-dimmed, and you’re thinking, has it started or has it not? The man starts reading rather badly from a script, and then someone interrupts him from the audience, and you find yourself in the middle of a public speaking class. And out of that rather unlikely beginning emerges this extraordinary story, and we, the audience, are very invested in it - and then we’re taken completely by surprise.”
The show is a two-hander. The characters are Arthur Kipps, a lawyer who believes his family has been cursed by the apparition of the Woman in Black, and The Actor, employed by Arthur to help him tell the story. But as the pair embark on the tale, it becomes evident that exorcising this particular ghost will be no easy task.
“Susan Hill’s story is amazing. When I first read it, one enters her world and I thought it was really quite scary. But to enter that world in a theatre and get people to come with you is a bit of a challenge.
“I think the fact that the set is all around you makes a huge impact. The play takes place literally within a theatre, so wherever you are, whether it’s the Wolverhampton Grand or the Birmingham Alex, that becomes the setting for the play. We use whatever’s there - this show has an extraordinary capacity to expand or contract to whichever space you happen to be playing in.”
And so the audience are pulled into the story both mentally and physically.
“People come from behind you, sound comes from all around you, and the actors leave the stage and invade your space. I think that just reinforces the story. Everyone likes to be told a story, but to be told it live and in person and from all directions - that’s something you’re not quite ready for.
“You’re not actually safe in your seat. If you go and see a horror film, it’s only an image projected onto a wall, and if you stick your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes, it’s gone. But actually, with live bodies being around you, that is quite scary.
“We’re part of a Western rational scepticism about the supernatural, and people know of ghostly happenings mainly by second hand. So I think that in a funny way when a ghost story gets to you, then you’re quite susceptible to it.”
Taking the role of Arthur Kipps is Walsall-born actor Malcolm James. Mark Hawkins plays The Actor.
“They have both done the play before but with different partners, which is really quite nice as it means the chemistry gets remixed. As a director, I try and let the actors discover the play themselves and portray their version of it. If they do that, they are much more committed to it and it’s likely to be much more truthful and effective.”
Although The Woman In Black was originally created for adults, with Hill’s novel being a school text, the stage show also attracts younger audiences.
“What has delighted me beyond measure is how wonderfully young people have taken to this show. They come in their droves, and it’s a wonderful tool to explain the power of theatre to young people. The same story exists as a novel, as a film, as a television version and as a play, and yet we can ask how we can make each version count.
“We can give a first taste of theatre, and it’s a show which has a real impact on them, which is so important to ensure the next generation of theatregoers.
“This show relies on imagination. There’s nothing out there - just two guys, a wicker basket and a couple of chairs, and that’s all it is. But then there is this extraordinary story, and it’s down to the skills of what an actor can conjure up. What never ceases to amaze me is how everyone in the audience then commits to it. Give them something that will actually engage them, no matter their age, and they are wonderfully willing to be engaged.”
by Diane Parkes
The Woman In Black shows at: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Wednesday 6 to Saturday 9 September; Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 7 - Saturday 11 November; The Alexandra, Birmingham, from Tuesday 6 to Saturday 10 February; and Crewe Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday 23 to Saturday 27 April
The irresistibly eerie stage adaptation of The Woman In Black - the 1983 gothic ghost story by Dame Susan Hill - began its latest UK tour at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre last night.
This chilling drama, adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End (after The Mousetrap) and has been haunting audiences there for an incredible 33 years. What’s more, the show has been seen by over seven million people worldwide.
And if last night’s performance is anything to go by, it will continue to enthral and terrify audiences in equal measure for many a year to come!
A two-hander starring Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins, the play features a ‘play within a play’ and centres on the character of Arthur Kipps, a man who hires a young and sceptical actor to help him tell the story, to an invited audience, of events that have haunted him for 30 long years...
While employed as a junior solicitor, Kipps had been summoned to attend the funeral of his client, Mrs Alice Drablow, the only inhabitant of Eel Marsh House. Whilst settling her estate, he quickly realised that he was not a welcome guest at her sinister home...
Kipps hopes that by sharing his story, he will at last be able to exorcise the fear that has gripped his soul every minute of every day for the previous 30 years; the fear that he and his family have been cursed by a ‘woman in black’; a spectre which he had inadvertently encountered on that fateful day all those years earlier...
The play’s first act sets the scene, and whilst not particularly frightening, it builds just the right amount of tension and suspense. Act two is far more gripping, the sense of menace and malevolence being palpably ramped up. The horror feels real and extremely believable. I sat on the edge of my seat, hardly daring to breathe!
The show is brilliant in its simple staging. The inventive use of lighting and sound create a truly sinister atmosphere. Smoke machines mimic the prevailing mist, further heightening the mystery and suspense. The occasional moment of humour offers brief respite from the mounting tension.
Ultimately, though, the success of this play depends on the actors’ ability to ignite the imagination of the audience - something which James and Hawkins did to excellent effect last night. I was utterly gripped from start to finish. Indeed, I was still affected even later, after I’d left the theatre, by a sense of foreboding I found hard to shake.
This is a fabulous show, particularly if you’ve never seen it before and have no idea what to expect. My companion was a first-time attendee and spent much of the evening jumping out of her seat. For her, it was every inch a five-star production.
Reviewed by Sue Hull on Wednesday 6 September at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.
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