The Guardian

Alex Needham, 28 Oct 2012

Robin Herford was running the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough when he realised he hadn't spent his entire grant. His boss, Alan Ayckbourn, was off on sabbatical, so Herford decided, what with Christmas coming up, to put on a ghost story that could be staged cheaply and quickly – not in the main theatre, but in the bar. He asked the venue's resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt to rustle one up, with the proviso that the set and costumes couldn't cost more than £1,000, adding that there was only enough money to pay four actors.

"He wasn't terribly impressed," remembers Herford, 25 years on. "But he came back a couple of days later and said, 'Have you read Susan Hill's book The Woman in Black?'" Hill's creepy novella had been published a few years earlier, in 1983. "I read it overnight and said, 'It's a fantastic story – but it's got a dozen characters.'"

"I've got an idea about that," said Mallatratt. His masterstroke was to make The Woman in Black a play within a play, one that needs just two speaking actors, and a backstage crew of four. Elderly Arthur Kipps brings a ghost story to a young actor; it's the story of something that happened to Kipps 30 years earlier, and the actor turns it into a drama. The older actor plays around half a dozen characters, while the other takes the role of young Kipps, a solicitor in the remote town of Crythin Gifford, who has to visit a mysterious house in the marshes to tie up a dead woman's affairs – discovering all too late why the townsfolk shrink from the place.

The Woman in Black sold out the first night it was staged, on 12 December 1987, and ran successfully for three weeks. A year later, it moved to the Lyric Hammersmith and finally to the West End, where it has played at the Fortune theatre since 1989. It is now one of the longest-running plays in British theatrical history, currently celebrating its silver anniversary with a parallel national tour. Its popularity has been further boosted by this year's film adaptation, which starred Daniel Radcliffe. Sadly, Mallatratt did not get to see it, having died in 2004.

Term times are particularly busy: The Woman in Black is popular with school groups, since it's part of the curriculum. On the night I attend, the Fortune is full of screaming 14-year-olds, but the play is easily capable of terrifying older viewers, too. Ken Drury, who plays Arthur Kipps in the West End production, relishes the recent memory of a man who gasped "Fuck's sake!" as a mysteriously locked door, central to the plot, swung open.

So what makes The Woman in Black so frightening? "The whole theatre is the set," explains Herford. "If I'm watching something scary on the telly or at the cinema, you know it's just an image on a flat screen, and you can shut your eyes." From the beginning of the show, however, characters start appearing at the back of the auditorium, leaving the audience constantly feeling something could creep up on them. "I try to preserve a sense of discomfort," adds Herford. "There's no music playing, and I try to keep the air conditioning cooler than might be comfortable. The audience is slightly keyed-up."

One of the most unnerving moments comes when Kipps returns to the nursery that lies behind the door and discovers an empty rocking chair – still in motion. "It's the little things that get you," says Susan Hill. "Less is always more." And, like most of the other effects, it is simply done. "It's fishing wire," says Jon Huyton, the company manager, revealing one of the secrets of a spartan set that amounts to little more than a door, some gauze, a flight of steps, a few pieces of nursery furniture – and, of course, plenty of dry ice. Sound effects are another crucial ingredient: trains, winds, tolling bells, and bloodcurdling cries all conspire to send the audience's imagination into overdrive. "We've had screams go off in the wrong place," says Huyton. "That's one to test the boys on stage, because everyone in the audience reacts."

Although the play has remained essentially unchanged since its debut, it is regularly refreshed: each cast lasts for around nine months in the West End. "Each time I do it," says Herford, "I think, 'This really is a very good play.' And that's quite rare. It's a joy to direct each time, because you can let the new cast have their heads a bit."

Deputy electrician Stephen Derham, who has seen casts come and go, says that one set of actors got through the play in an hour and 45 minutes, while the next cast stretched it to almost two and a half hours. Yet both, he says, "scared the living bejaysus out of the audience – and that's the main thing".

Although everyone involved in The Woman in Black believes it will run and run, it has a long way to go before it catches up with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has been in the West End for 60 years. Herford admits he has a vested interest in keeping the play fresh: like Hill, he earns a royalty. "It hasn't made me very rich because it's a very small theatre and it's not a big percentage. But it took my son to Oxford, and it has given me a measure of security few freelance directors can enjoy. We've certainly made the government a phenomenal amount through VAT on tickets, far more than the subsidy Scarborough received." Hill adds: "It's not squillions, but it's a nice pension."

What of the woman in black herself? Well – and the spoiler-wary should stop reading this now – as title roles go, it is certainly one of the West End's strangest. There are no lines, and dance experience is preferred. "You almost want them to float," says Huyton. "We've just had someone performing it for nine months and she said at the end, 'I will come back, but I've got to do some speaking for a while.'" Referred to as "the vision" by cast and crew, the woman is on stage for mere minutes yet manages to cause mayhem throughout the auditorium. "From her first entrance, the kids scream like anything," says Huyton. "They go ballistic."



Man holding suitcase