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Robin Herford - The Woman in Black

When Stephen Mallatratt's stage version of Susan Hill's gothic horror novel, The Woman in Black, arrives in Edinburgh this week en route to Glasgow as part of the show's latest tour, Robin Herford's production marks a twenty-five year West End run second only to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap in terms of longevity.

“It's quite bizarre,” says Herford, who has been with the show from the start, ever since he commissioned Mallatratt to write it while running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. “Normally a show only goes out on tour once its finished its run in the West End, but because the Fortune where we are in London is such a tiny theatre with only four hundred seats, this is the sort of thing that we can continue to take on.”

The play itself opens with an old man called Arthur Kipps alone in a Victorian theatre, where he is joined by a young actor he has hired to help perform events that have haunted him for decades. Over the next two hours we enter Kipps' world in Eel Marsh House, where as a young lawyer he first encountered the mysterious Woman in Black.

“We were in two other theatres in the West End before we moved into the Fortune,” Herford says, “which is where we always wanted to be because it's so diddy, but touring it is really interesting as well, because the set is the theatre, and the play has this bizarre ability to expand or contract depending on the size of the theatre.”

The stage version of The Woman in Black was born out of what Herford calls “Yorkshire meanness” when it was pointed out to him that there was a surplus left over from the Stephen Joseph Theatre's public funding which he was advised to spend lest it get taken back.

“We thought we'd do an extra show in the bar,” Herford recalls, “and I asked Stephen to write me a ghost story for Christmas. We had enough money for four actors, and he suggested The Woman in Black, so I read the novel overnight but thought there were too many characters, and he said he had an idea to solve it, and came back with the play as we ended up doing it.”

Playing to audiences of seventy, The Woman in Black sold out its initial 1987 run, after which Herford and Mallatratt, who passed away in 2004, spent a year trying to mount a London production before it eventually opened at the Lyric Hammersmith, leading to its initial West End transfer.

“If we'd had lots of money for a cast of twelve, I'm sure we could've still done a good job,” says Herford, “but I doubt very much it would still be running today."

To keep things fresh, Herford brings in a brand new cast every nine months, overseeing rehearsals each time himself.

“There are times I feel a little hung round the neck,” he says, “and wonder if I can do it again, and if the show wasn't a two-hander I don't think I could. If there were six people in the cast, say, and I was bound by the moves that would dictate, I couldn't do it, but because there are only two people on a stage you can do anything you like, and I do encourage actors to take ownership of the thing.

“There are an incredibly different amount of ways it can be done, and because the only actor plays so many different characters, you can trust the actor's imagination and let them do what they do, and you can see that in all the actors who've played that part, whether it's Edward Petherbridge or Frank Finlay and so on.

“As a director as well it's taught be a huge lesson about not being perverse, and not doing Three Sisters set in a Chinese launderette or something like that. Just do the play and let the actors involved play it.”

One of the most striking things about The Woman in Black is how relatively lo-tech it is. Rather than rely on state of art technology to scare its audience as other commercial fare might, Herford's production looks to a bag of tricks recently rediscovered by a new generation of theatrical ingénues, whose lo-fi wares presented at venues such as Battersea Arts Centre and the Forest Fringe are considered infinitely more cutting edge.

“They're very old tricks,” Herford laughs. “I sort of get embarrassed when I say that what we're doing is theatrical magic, but stretching a gauze across a stage with a face behind it, it's not rocket science.”

In 2012, a film of The Woman in Black was produced by Hammer, the film company responsible for many of Britain's classic horror film from the 1960s and 1970s. Featuring former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps, the film was scripted by screen-writer Jane Goldman, whose husband Jonathan Ross had been long identified as a fan of the play.

“I remember Jonathan Ross seeing it at the Fortune and going on about it on his radio show,” says Herford, “so there was an obvious enthusiasm for it in the family. The difference is that they've obviously gone back to the book, although they've changed that as well, and I'm not sure why, but that's their take on it, and pound for pound there are a lot of frightening moments there. But the film's done us no harm at all, and the year it came out was probably our busiest, and we still get letters to Daniel Radcliffe sent to the stage door.”

A sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, was produced by Hammer two years later. The film stars Phoebe Fox, the daughter of actor Stuart Fox, who in a spooky piece of synchronicity, appeared in the stage version of The Woman in Black in London.

The show isn't just a UK-based phenomenon, however, and there have been productions of The Woman in Black in India, Hong Kong and New Zealand, while inbetween overseeing numerous other projects, Herford will shortly visit Japan to direct a Japanese language version.

“It shows no sign of slowing down at the moment,” says Herford. “That's theatre. It's not something you can hold in your hand. Everyone likes being told a story, and everyone responds to a human story. If you get nothing else from the slightly disjointed opening scene, it's that this older man is in trouble and in pain, and his idea of reading the story, with this younger man providing all the energy to make it happen, is the only thing that can help him. After that, we all want to know what happened, and if you stick it out until the interval, you're definitely going to want to know what happens next.”

The Woman in Black, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, April 14-18; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 20-25.

 
The Herald, April 14th 2015

ends

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