It started off as an extra show to use up surplus budget, but The Woman in Black has turned into the West End’s second longest-running play and a worldwide hit. As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the production’s director tells Fergus Morgan how it maintains the magic with low-tech effects and a fresh cast every nine months
There’s a hair-raising moment in long-running West End show The Woman in Black when the main character – a junior solicitor investigating a creepy old house on the north-east coast – reaches for a doorknob and a bloodcurdling scream rings around the theatre.
“I needed a child’s scream,” says director Robin Herford. “So I asked my son, who was nine at the time. And it’s his scream, recorded in 1987 for the one-off sum of £10, that has terrified audiences all around the world ever since. He’s now a 40-year-old university lecturer and he’s still scaring people in the West End six nights a week.”
That anecdote reveals just how makeshift The Woman in Black originally was. Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novel, it was only ever intended to run for three and a half weeks in Scarborough for Christmas 1987.
Herford, who commissioned and directed the show when he was artistic director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, and who still directs every new cast around other projects, half-jokingly says it came about because of “Yorkshire meanness”.
He says: “The last advice the outgoing general manager gave me was: ‘Spend all your grant, because if you don’t spend it, you won’t get it next year.’ It got to the end of my second year in charge, I still had a little bit of money left, and I thought: ‘I know, we’ll do an extra show.’ ”
While the theatre’s family Christmas show was running in the main house, Herford decided to stage something else – a Christmas ghost story for adults – in the theatre bar. “I had about £1,000 for a production budget, and enough money for four actors,” he says.
Herford approached Mallatratt, then resident playwright at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, who suggested an adaptation of Hill’s novel, published four years previously. Herford’s budgetary constraints forced Mallatratt towards creating the show’s meta-theatrical structure – a play within a play, set in an old theatre, with only two actors playing all the parts.
“It was pretty rough-and-ready,” says Herford of that first production. “What we weren’t prepared for was how terrifying people found it. People would come up to us and tell us that they hadn’t slept with the light off for 10 days because of our show.”
It was over a year before The Woman in Black was seen on stage again. Herford left the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and he and Mallatratt “spent a year knocking on doors” looking for a producer prepared to take the show on. Eventually, Peter Wilson, who hadn’t even seen the show in Scarborough, agreed.
“He took an enormous punt,” says Herford. “It’s thanks to his extraordinary courage as a producer that The Woman in Black ever made it to the West End.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Actor in a theatre-in-education company based in Bradford.
What’s your next job?
Stray Dogs, a play based on the life of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, at the Park Theatre in London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
There is no such thing as a stupid question.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Alan Ayckbourn, who encouraged me to become a director, and provided me not only with an example of how it might be done, but also gave me the space in which to discover how to do it for myself and by myself.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to walk across the stage after a performance once the audience has left, on my way out of the building. It’s a process of resetting the empty space.
The Woman in Black opened at the Lyric Hammersmith in January 1989 to favourable reviews. In February that year it transferred to the Strand Theatre, in April it moved into the Playhouse Theatre, and in August it arrived at the 432-seat Fortune Theatre on Russell Street.
It has remained there ever since, chalking up more than 12,000 performances, earning the title of second-longest-running play in West End history, after The Mousetrap. It’s seen more than 50 cast changes, been on 12 national tours, and travelled to Japan, America, India, Hong Kong, Australia and more.
There are many reasons behind its phenomenal success – the fact that it’s a rare example of genuinely scary theatre, and that both the book and the play are mainstays on various GCSE and A-level courses among them – but the real secret, says Herford, lies in its simplicity, in the way it asks the audience to use their imagination to augment what he calls the show’s “rough theatre magic”.
“It’s so ridiculously non-hi-tech,” he says. “It’s just simple stuff. An actor puts on a cap and becomes a different person. You light a gauze from behind and it becomes invisible for a reveal. Audiences love this stuff. It is a sort of alchemy. A kind of magic.”
He continues: “What is so wonderful is that even these days, when we’re so used to being spoonfed atmosphere, when you think people have lost the ability to use their own imaginations, we still get really strong reactions. We’ve had one or two extended intervals while audience members have been stretchered out of the stalls.”
Maintaining that magic is part of the reason why Herford insists on directing every new version of The Woman in Black – every recast, every national tour, every international replica.
“People ask me why I don’t get bored, and I wish I knew why that was the case,” he says. “I can’t think of any other play, and I mean any other play, that I would go back to so readily. I love it. I’m in love with this play.”
Every nine months, Herford returns to the West End production to direct a new set of performers. According to him, cast changes are like giving the show “a blood transfusion”.
“People go and see the play and say that it doesn’t feel like it’s been running for 30 years, and it’s because the actors have only been doing it for two months,” he says. “Because it’s a two-hander, I’m able to give ownership of the play to the actors who come in. If you truly trust them, and allow them to contribute to the show, you have an extra resource that is so valuable, and I’m sure that has helped the longevity of the play, too.”
Over the years, scores of actors have appeared in The Woman in Black, including Joseph Fiennes and Frank Finlay in 1993, Michael Grandage in 1994, and Martin Freeman in 1997. Herford himself, who trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic, was in it in 2007.
“It’s so invidious to pick people out,” he says of former cast-members. “The original cast in Scarborough – Jon Strickland and Dominic Letts – was just phenomenal. Charlie Kay and John Duttine, who opened it in the West End, were fantastic. Frank Finlay brought such class to it, as well. We’ve had wonderful people who have brought such totally different approaches to the parts. It’s the variety of it I love.”
What started as a small seasonal show in Scarborough has grown to become one of the defining landmarks of British theatre, and it shows no sign of stopping. In 2012, a film version of Hill’s novel, starring Daniel Radcliffe, brought a whole new audience to the Fortune Theatre. Herford, it seems, will be kept busy for some years yet.
“I’m casting three things at the moment,” he says. “The first is another UK tour of The Woman in Black, which we’ll rehearse in August. The second is a tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table. The third is a new play about Russian poets. And soon after that, I’ll be doing The Woman in Black again.”
Will it go on forever? “I hope so,” says Herford. “I think it’s such a valuable addition to our repertoire. I think it says so many important things about theatre, about live theatre, about why it should be preserved, and about how it doesn’t take an awful lot to create something very special.”
Born: 1946, Windsor
Training: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (acting course)
As an actor: Sisterly Feelings, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (1979); Taking Steps, SJT (1979); Season’s Greetings, SJT (1980); Way Upstream, SJT (1982; Intimate Exchanges, SJT and Ambassador’s Theatre, London (1982-85)
As a director: Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, SJT (1986); All My Sons, SLT (1987); The Beaux’ Stratagem, SJT (1988); The Woman in Black, SJT (1987) and Fortune Theatre, London (1989-present) – also Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and USA; A Going Concern, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton (1992); Rough Justice, Apollo, London (1993); Joking Apart, Greenwich Theatre (1995); Home, Oldham Coliseum (2002); Proof, Oldham Coliseum (2004); Arsenic and Old Lace, UK tour (2005); Rain Man, UK tour (2012); Duet for One, UK tour (2013)
See the show’s website for more details: thewomaninblack.com