The stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black has been delighting audiences for decades. What’s On catches up with leading man Robert Goodale to find out more about the production’s enduring appeal... 

First opening in Scarborough in 1987 and in London two years later, Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman In Black is one of the longest-running plays in West End history. 

Now, the hugely acclaimed production is coming to the Midlands - and leading man Robert Goodale couldn’t be more excited to be back on stage: “I don’t like to use the word surreal, but it did feel slightly unreal to be back on stage post-lockdown. I couldn’t quite believe that it was really happening, but we’ve had such a wonderful reassurance from the audience. It feels like everyone in the building is in it together and delighted to be back in the theatre again, so it’s a bit like a celebration that life is beginning to go back to normal.”

In The Woman In Black, Robert takes the part of the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, a role he previously played during the 2019/’20 tour of the show.

Adapted from Susan Hill’s acclaimed novel of the same name, the stage production has been tremendously successful, and Robert is under no illusion as to why: “It’s such a beautiful piece of storytelling, and that’s what I love about it. It has the ability to emotionally engage the audience in a way that I don’t think any other theatre production has been doing. Stephen Mallatratt, who originally adapted it for the stage, had such a fantastic vision of how to make it work.”

A primary appeal of the play is what Robert calls the ‘fright night element’: “It knows how to terrify you. It’s all done by the power of suggestion and what you can’t see, so a lot is left to the imagination. But I wouldn’t say that you have to bring your imagination with you; I think what the show does is seduce you into using your imagination in ways which you may not necessarily have thought of doing.”

If the play is truly as terrifying as Robert promises, do the cast hear many screams from the audience? 

“People are terrified to different degrees. Schoolkids will scream their heads off, which we love! Adults will usually sit there quietly and grab each other’s arms.”

The Woman In Black is more than just a ghost story, though - as Robert is quick to point out: “At the beginning of the play, Arthur Kipps has written down this story about what happened to him 30 years ago, and the play is all about how he’s trying to find a way to communicate it to his family, because he’s kept it bottled up for so many years. 

“He asks an actor to help him read the story, but they end up performing it. So, within the play is a performance of the story itself, going between the actor and Arthur Kipps. I think it’s the simplicity combined with the intensity that makes it so appealing.”

Even those who may not be familiar with the stage play have likely heard of the 2012 film adaptation of The Woman In Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe. However, despite the movie’s popularity, Robert confesses he’s never seen it: “I’ve watched the beginning of it, but the film differs from the play in that Arthur is portrayed as having his breakdown before the story really begins. But actually, in the original narrative, he starts off as being very gung-ho, and he doesn’t believe in ghosts. I’m sure the film is great, and I love Daniel Radcliffe, but I didn’t want to watch any more of it because it was so different to the story that I know.”

In fact, Robert suggests that being familiar with only the play is an advantage to him on stage: “I think the play really enables its audience to engage with the story much more because of how it plays on the imagination, which is something that films can’t really do. Our imaginations are so powerful, and are always much stronger than what we’re given.”

Robert has a genuine love for the play, and taking on the role of Arthur Kipps has been a real pleasure for him: “Arthur is a man who’s very on-edge and going through a bit of a breakdown, so I love the fact that the play is a cathartic journey for him. It’s a lovely challenge for an actor and a great part to play.”

That said, the role isn’t without its challenges: “You obviously throw yourself into the part and attempt to do it in the way you think is right, but sometimes you’re hitting the wrong emotional note and getting the characterisation wrong. Because of what the character is talking about, I was playing it in a sort of traumatised way, but actually that’s not how it should be, because he’s not indulging, he’s just carrying on.

“It’s also very important to make sure the characters of Arthur and ‘the actor’ have a rapport, because the performance needs to be raw. So those were a couple of the challenges that cropped up in rehearsals - but all surmountable I hope!”

Robert is joined on stage by Anthony Eden, who plays the part of the actor, a young man who’s hired by Arthur to dramatise his story. “Anthony is just wonderful to work with, and I think we connect on stage, which is so important, of course.”

No doubt the pair will put on a stellar show, having already amassed an impressive list of theatre credits between them. 

However, Robert confesses he hopes to take a short break from the stage after he finishes in The Woman In Black: “Our tour goes on until October, and having done quite an intense stage role for a long period of time, I wouldn’t really want to go straight into another. I like the variety of going off to do a bit of television or filming - so I think that’s what I’d like to do next. A nice period drama!”

For now, however, Robert is focused only on the current tour. Having performed in Cambridge and Bath so far, he’s eager to become more familiar with the Midlands region: “I’ve been to Cambridge and Bath many times before, but I don’t know the Midlands nearly as well, and I’m excited for it because that will be a new venture. I’m really looking forward to coming your way!”

The Woman In Black shows at Malvern Theatres, Mon 9 - Sat 14 August; Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, Mon 16 - Sat 21 August; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Mon 27 September - Sat 2 October.