Page to stage adaptations are having somewhat of a moment. From the seven Olivier Award-earning The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time to the RSC’s hugely successful adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the West End is packed with stories that started life as the words of a novel.
There’s one production that outlives all these shows by decades however, The Woman In Black, which took Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story and created an atmospheric and downright terrifying stage show more than two decades ago.
As it marks its 25th year at the Fortune Theatre – yes that’s a whole quarter of a century in the West End! – Robin Herford spoke to us about how a show that started in a theatre bar in Scarborough destined for a three-week festive run became one of the best loved long-running shows in Theatreland’s history.
I was running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough because Alan Ayckbourn was at the National Theatre for two years on a sabbatical. I got to the end of my second year and I found I still had £1,000 left in my production budget and I had enough money in my actors’ budget to pay for four actors to rehearse and perform. So I thought ‘Right, we’ll do a ghost story in the bar’. I went to Stephen Mallatratt, who was my playwright, assistant director and friend, and said ‘Would you write me a ghost story for Christmas? You can adapt an existing one or write an original one, but the set and costumes can’t cost more than a £1,000’ – this was 1987! – ‘and you can’t have more than four actors and we’re going to do it in the bar’. He wasn’t terribly impressed but he went away and a couple of days later came back and said ‘Have you read Susan Hill’s novel The Woman In Black?’
Stephen went off and came up with this extraordinary idea about doing it as a two-hander. It actually enhanced her original idea and it also provided two cracking parts for actors. If I’d said to Stephen ‘Look, we’ve got 30 grand, we can have a cast of a dozen’ I’m sure we’d have done a great show – we couldn’t have done it in the bar because there wasn’t room – but it sure as hell wouldn’t be running now!
The opening night in Scarborough was well received and we sold out by about 11:00 the next morning for the entire run. Mind you, we only had to sell 70 seats a night… The play was only programmed to run for three and half weeks, and at the end of it Stephen and I looked at each other and said ‘Do you think it could go anywhere else or not?’ Would it stand the bright lights of London? We decided to try. We went looking for a London producer and we found Peter Wilson. He hadn’t seen it in Scarborough and he read the script and took a punt on it, sight unseen, which is extraordinarily brave! So much so you’d have to be crazy really or a tad rash… But that’s the man and I am so grateful.
We opened it at the Lyric Hammersmith, we had lovely reviews and on the strength of that we moved to The Strand [now the Novello], we went to the Playhouse and then we moved to the Fortune. Every week since then we’ve been playing there.
When we moved to the Fortune we were something like £172,000 in the red, because of having to tour around the West End. But Peter’s belief in the play was such that he kept it going, he even mortgaged his house to keep it going. Little by little we just clawed back until we’d gone into the black.
In some ways it feels like 25 years, but in others it really doesn’t. You think ‘How on Earth did those years manage to tick by?’ I was sitting watching it the other day and thought, ‘I can think of so few plays that I could willingly sit through again and again’. I have quite a low boredom threshold usually, but it really does change. I think it’s partly because I change the cast every nine months, and I really do try to – it sounds corny – reinvent it.
Yes The Woman In Black is scary, but that’s sort of incidental. It’s a cracking story and it has a sort of Greek, linear, tragic quality to it that goes straight into the bloodstream. Everyone likes being told a good story, but it is the way in which it’s conceived, and that really came out of a financial restriction that meant that Stephen and I had to approach the play in a certain way.
People often come back to see it again and again. Partly it’s to say ‘Yes I was there on Joseph Fiennes’ first night’ and all that, but it’s so different each time another pair of actors step up to the plate. It’s taught me ‘Do not reject what actors bring you’. To do that is to deny their contribution and they will feel much more at ease, much more at home with the part, if it is genuinely their creation and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. I don’t say ‘Go and see how it’s done and then come back and replicate that’ because you’d just get more and more blurred, carbon copies of a distant original.
The simplest tricks are the best. You can have a gauze slung across the stage and if you light it from one side you can’t see through it and if you light it from the other side you reveal everything behind. It is such a simple trick, I almost blush to mention it! But actually it provides an extraordinary reveal. If you equate it with the use of CGI in films, I think ‘Oh that’s terribly clever and yes that’s not a Persian army of 5,000 extras, they’re all incredibly cleverly created CGI images’ but it sort of robs the emotion out of it.
I said it was a budget production and most of the sound effects are provided by my family! My wife, who played the first Woman In Black, does some of the screaming, but the single child’s scream is actually my son Oliver, who is now a lecturer in English Literature at Oxford at the age of 35. But at the age of nine, I needed a child’s scream and I said ‘If I set up a mic would you scream for me?’ It’s the one that’s always been used in our productions and it’s gone all around the world.
I think the thing I’m proudest of about the show is that it has introduced an awful lot of young people to the theatre for the first time. It is the only show – and this is absolutely true – where the actors complain if there isn’t a school party in the audience! Sure, occasionally they do get a bit excited, but ultimately they provide a wonderful heartbeat to the play because they’re not afraid to scream if they’re frightened!
We’ve done over a dozen UK tours. I’ve done it in Tokyo, I’ve done it in Australia, New Zealand… In Japan I did it in Japanese! I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I don’t speak Japanese, not a word. We started the read-through and they handed me the Japanese script and I thought ‘This could be The Sound Of Music for all I know!’ But bizarrely, because I knew the play so well – I have played both the parts, so I do know every word of it – after a couple of days, even in Japanese I found I knew exactly where I was in the script, which was extraordinary.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. I try and see it about every five to six weeks in the West End, basically just to give a few notes and buy a drink and tell them they’re doing a great job. I must have directed over 50 or 60 different combinations of actors both in the West End and around the world. I daren’t think [how many times I’ve seen it]… That way madness lies!
If this were a true story, I wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole. It’s not that I believe in ghosts, I just don’t not believe in them… I like to think that all the passion, all the emotion, all the energy that has been expended on the stage of an old theatre somehow seeps into the fabric of the theatre. So I’m not surprised there are ghostly stories [about the Fortune Theatre] and I rather delight in them.