The Woman In Black: 25 Years On (1987)One of the most notable successes at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was the stage adaptation of Susan Hill's novella The Woman In Black. Commissioned by Robin Herford whilst Alan Ayckbourn was at the National Theatre and adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, the world premiere of the play opened at the venue in December 1987. This low-budget 'stocking filler' of a show would subsequently transfer to the West End, where it remains to this day, and would also be produced around the world.
To mark the play's 25th anniversary in 2012, this article by Simon Murgatroyd was published in the January 2012 edition of the SJT Circular.
The Woman In BlackTwenty-five years ago, audiences in Scarborough became the first to fall under the spell of a genuine theatrical phenomenon.
And also the first of many audiences to be scared witless...
2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman In Black. In that time it has become one of the most successful plays ever to be staged in the West End and has gone onto global recognition and success.
Yet it all began as a low budget Christmas filler in Scarborough.
The Woman In Black was first published in 1983, an unexpected change of genre for the noted Scarborough born author Susan Hill which would draw praise and critical acclaim over the years for her version of the English ghost story.
In 1986, the late writer and actor Stephen Mallatratt read the ghost story whilst on holiday in Greece and was immediately taken by the piece.
“A Greek beach must be the most inappropriate place to read a story like this! But that was where I read it, and, like most people who have read it, I was very struck by it. It was a bit of a nutty idea, really. But when I got back I wrote to Susan Hill saying, either would she consider adapting it, or would she let me?”
Susan was not at all convinced by the idea but, in July 1986, she replied to Stephen in a letter still held by the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
“I’m amazed that you should think it remotely possible to do the book on stage, but thinking of what has been done in dramatic form, which would seem pretty unlikely, I imagine there must be a way, if you think so!”
Citing part of the charm was that the play would be staged in her childhood home of Scarborough, she gave Stephen permission to adapt the play, but with no slot for it in the theatre that year, the idea was put on the back-burner and the script remained unwritten.
That same year, the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, began a two year sabbatical at the National Theatre. The day to day running of the theatre - including the programming - passed to Robin Herford. During the summer of 1987, he conceived the idea of a “Christmas Stocking filler” which would use the season’s remaining production budget for a seasonal ghost story staged in the 70 seat studio theatre.
Robin approached Stephen, the theatre’s resident writer, with the idea and, due to the limited budget, the proviso, “I can’t afford to have more than four actors or elaborate sets.” Stephen reminded him about his interest in The Woman In Black, which felt to Robin like a possible solution, albeit with one glaring issue.
“I read the book and was immediately impressed by its evocative power, but it had one drawback - a list of characters numbering about a dozen. Stephen seemed unperturbed, and proceeded to write me a two-handed play, which not only solved my budgetary problems but actually enhanced the original premise of Susan’s story.”
Equally impressed was Susan Hill, who had practically forgotten about Stephen’s request from the previous year. She read the script and thought, “Good Lord, this man has actually done it... It’s very clever.”
WIth the author’s approval and a script in place, Robin took on directing duties with design by Michael Holt, lighting by Mick Thomas, sound by Jackie Staines and vision by Lesley Meade. The two acting roles were taken by Jon Strickland as The Actor and Dominic Letts as Kipps.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Stephen’s masterstroke was to transfer the action of the play to a Victorian theatre, where a young lawyer is asked to partake in the retelling of a chilling story by The Actor, who plays all the other roles. In a single stroke, Stephen had negated the staging problems of the novella, as locations - be it London or a causeway through the marshes - and characters were left to the skill of the actors, a hugely memorable sound plot and one other essential element noted by Robin: “It is the magic of theatre, made possible only by that most precious and under-used of commodities, the audience’s imagination.”
The Woman In Black opened on Friday 11 December 1987 in what Robin later described as “a rough and ready” production. Both he and Stephen were unsure of whether it would work or not; a feeling Stephen still felt at the end of the first night.
“There was good solid applause at the end, and our friends said all the right things - they would, wouldn’t they? - but then we were left in a dark room with about eighty odd chairs, a lot of black cloth and a fair bit of doubt.”
The first reviews appeared on the Monday and did not offer much more clarification. The Daily Telegraph reviewer was the most enthusiastic noting the play “put the wind up its audience” and himself. The Scarborough Evening News’ reviewer had the somewhat unpleasant feeling of “the skin on the back of my neck positively crawling up onto my skull.” While The Guardian was unimpressed citing a failure “to generate any tension”, although this from a reviewer who couldn’t even spell Mallatratt (referred to as Mallatrapp!).
Critics were not going to make or break this play though. Its success was always going to be dependent on word of mouth. For one significant person, it ticked every box. Susan Hill, visiting Scarborough for only the second time in thirty years, recalled in 2008 that there, “on the first of many, many occasions, I was riveted by the play.”
She was not the only one to enjoy it. Audiences fell in love with the show, so much so that Stephen recalled the theatre could barely cope with demand.
“The next day [after the reviews] something happened that you always hope will, and so seldom does. The box office phones started to ring and queues began to form. By the end of the short run we’d squeezed in extra chairs for every performance and we’d added three or four late night performances, selling out every time.”
The play ran for only three weeks, but it had been successful far beyond anyone could ever have imagined or hoped. Susan Hill fondly recalls Alan Ayckbourn telling her that there were now two great plays adapted from ghost stories, The Turn of The Screw and The Woman In Black.
With no expectations behind it, The Woman In Black proved to be an extraordinary success in Scarborough. Although that would merely be the start of a remarkable journey.
In January 1989, it transferred to London, eventually finding a permanent home at the Fortune Theatre where, in June 2011, it played its 9000th performance.
It is estimated the play has been seen by more than 7 million people in the UK alone since 1987 and it has been produced in more than 40 other countries around the world.
From humble beginnings, The Woman In Black has become a phenomenon, scaring audiences around the world. It is this which Robin Herford believes is the key to that popularity and enduring appeal twenty five years later.
“It shows you can experience fear in a theatre, which so few people believe to be possible. It’s a cracking story that deals with the supernatural, but it is conceived in very human terms. The Woman In Black’s tragedy is a very human tragedy you can relate to. It is so clear and terrifying.”
N.B. For those readers who saw the play twenty-five years ago in Scarborough and who might have wondered about the identity of the Woman In Black, her name is contained in this article in exactly the same way as it was in the original programme. We’ll let you work out for yourself who chilled your spine all those years ago....
This article was first published in the January 2012 edition of the Stephen Joseph Theatre Circular magazine.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.