Stephen Mallatratt:

Playwright

My friend Stephen Mallatratt died in November 2004 at the age of 57. His most visible memorial is, of course, his brilliant adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, but he leaves behind him a huge body of other work that also testifies to his dedication to the art of thoughtful entertainment.

It’s difficult to connect the qualities of the man – his gentleness, his hesitancy, his utter reliability, his quietness, his persistent streak of pleasurable pessimism – with the vividness and occasional abandon of his writing.

We first met when I directed his play Comic Cuts in the late 1980s. He told me that Comic Cuts had been written at white heat (like so much at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in those days) because a new play of that name had been advertised and cast before the theatre discovered that the script hadn’t been written. So Stephen had to take the title and the cast and write a new play of his own to occupy the slot.

I’d heard of the play through the grapevine, but nothing had prepared me for the radiant accuracy of the farcical engine that Stephen had created, or the vivid speech patterns peppered through the script. In the flamboyantly crooked Byron and his simple son Maxie he created a great comic partnership, and the second act, in which the troupe of incompetent amateurs perform Gogol’s Government Inspector for the benefit of the Arts Council while two of them try to rob the safe, is a rare laugh machine.

His partnership with Robin Herford, who directed all his work at Scarborough, was as potent as many in British theatre. Its culmination in The Woman in Black has been pretty well documented, but after all these years in the West End, during which The Woman has acquired a (deserved) reputation as a thriller, it’s worth pointing out that the early reviews in 1989 paid tribute to both men’s ability to take the audience on a journey whose transport is its own imagination.

Stephen told me that the central inspiration for his adaptation of Susan Hill’s book was the Chorus in Henry V:
O for a muse of fire, that would ascend 
The brightest heaven of invention
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

which is paralleled in Stephen’s play when Kipps as Keckwick takes off his hat and scarf, moves downstage and asks the audience:

And so, imagine if you would, this stage an island, this aisle a causeway running like a ribbon between the gaunt grey house and the land

There aren’t many writers around who could use so lightly the key tool of theatre – the audience’s imagination – to create so hardy a perennial as The Woman in Black. Stephen’s gift was rare. His play Touch Wood and Whistle, about a shady estate agent trying to prevent the sale of a dilapidated chapel to a coven of white witches, also springs, like his other work, from an imagination utterly devoted to containing a complete story in its own terms within a formal framework of great skill, and to making room for extraordinary and original scenes.

He was an incredible friend: loyal, straightforward, supportive, coherent and honest. His wife Emma and her two children Jack and Lily, and his daughter Hannah, have benefited more than I did from his company, which is right, but then I always thought I had more time.

Peter Wilson, Producer


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