I often have a built-in aversion to things which are very popular, blockbuster movies or long running West End shows, for example, and usually go to lengths to avoid them. But the funny thing is, if I ever get round to seeing them, I usually enjoy them and regret not having seen them before – The Mousetrap being one notable exception. Second only to the Agatha Christie play in its West End longevity is The Woman in Black now its 29th spine-tingling year.
The play has been touring more or less continuously for several years and many of us will have seen it by now. I asked the play’s director, Robin Herford, why we would want to see it again, does it change much? “Enormously. I mean really enormously. You’d be quite surprised. For example, there is a twelve minute difference in running time between this touring show and the West End show.”
Robin has been involved with The Woman in Black from its conception in 1987 and still plays an active part in the various productions. “I change the cast in London every nine months and I visit every six weeks or so just to see that all is well. I think if it hadn’t been a two-hander it would have become a real chore. But the great thing is that you don’t ask the actors to repeat what’s already been done. With a new cast you sometimes think oh gosh, can I do this again and then you meet two new actors who have never done the play before, who are the foothills of this particular Matterhorn and you think that, yes, I’m going to enjoy watching climb this particular mountain.”
But it must be very hard work for both Robin and the actors. “It’s a big ask, but it’s hugely rewarding. I’ve performed it myself so I know. It’s an exceptionally fun show to do because it celebrates what actors can do which is become other people. We have, in this country, an extraordinary depth of character and leading actors who are totally unknown to the general public, who’ve never been in a TV soap or a long running London show.”
I’ve seen this play and it really is outstanding from a dozen different standpoints so I was playing devil’s advocate when I asked Robin if there wasn’t a danger of people coming to see the play just because it had been running so long; that it was becoming and tourist must see like Westminster Abbey or Tower Bridge? “Yes, absolutely – that it becomes self perpetuating. What I try to do to avoid that is firstly I direct it myself. That means that each nine months, or with each tour I can say to the actors ‘here you are, it’s your show, you own it.’ It becomes their show and that’s what keeps it fresh and alive.”
As I said, Robin has been involved in The Woman in Black since its conception. I wondered how that had come about. “It was in 1987 while I was running Scarborough [the Stephen Joseph Theatre] and Alan Ayckbourn was at the National and I’d been given two years to play in the sand pit by my self. At the end of the year I was told that all our grant had not been spent and would I please put it to good use. If you don’t spend all you grant they’ll you don’t need it and give you less the year after. Anyway, I had £1000 and I decided to slip in a new play for Christmas. I went to Stephen Mallatratt and said ‘write me a ghost story, either an adaptation or an original.
“Because it was squeezed into the existing programme and because we had a limited amount of money, there were enormous restrictions. Firstly, we had to do it in the theatre bar because the main house was showing something else. The space was tiny and poor Stephen was not impressed. Anyway, he came back with Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and I said ‘great, but too many characters.’ He said, ‘I’ve had an idea about that and it might leave you some change.
“Once we’d established how to do it with just two actors, it really flowed and after playing it for three weeks we both thought ‘that’s gone rather well, I wonder if perhaps it could have a further life.”
If you haven’t seen Woman in Black, then you must; if you have already seen it then you won’t need prompting to see it again. It is genuinely scary and will be one of the few occasions when you’ll find yourself in an audience that is gasping and screaming. And all of this is achieved with no blood and gore, just the systematic build up of suspense which often reaches breaking point. But these are no cheap thrills. The Woman in Black is good theatre. It’s original, clever, well written and deftly directed. Everything is achieved by just two actors, minimal sets – and your imagination.
Text and photo © Michael Hasted All rights reserved. No reproduction in part or in full without prior permission.