How Woman In Black has terrified us for 25 years

Antony Eden in The Woman In Black

Antony Eden in The Woman In Black - Credit: Tristram Kenton

It has been a must-see play for 25 years guaranteed to jangle the nerves. The Woman In Black was a global phenomenon on the stage long before it became a hit movie, and it continues to make audiences jump. JOHN BULTITUDE talks to director Robin Herford.

For someone so closely involved with the creation of a terrifying play, you would expect Robin Herford to be a somewhat austere, quiet, humourless person. Not a bit of it!

From the moment he starts talking, Robin proves to be an amenable, incredibly enthusiastic and charming ambassador for The Woman In Black, which started off as an antidote to pantomime for adult audiences at the world-famous Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough — best known as the theatrical home of Alan Ayckbourn's work.

In the intervening 25 years it has celebrated well over two decades of success, been performed worldwide and still proves as successful as ever.

Indeed, its latest UK tour arrives at Norwich Theatre Royal next week and promising to thrill even more theatregoers with the stage version of Susan Hill's classic ghost story.

And this is all a far cry from the production's much lowlier days when Robin first conceived it as low-budget theatrical entertainment for patrons in Scarborough.

He recalls: 'I had programmed all the shows right up until after Christmas but I still had a little bit of production budget left. I asked Stephen Mallatratt, who was my assistant director at the time, to write me a ghost story for Christmas. I had £1,000 for set and costumes, could afford four actors, and wanted to do it in the bar. We already had a Christmas show in the main house, and our bar was a bar-cum-studio-cum-restaurant.

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'I was also really keen on the idea of doing something for Christmas. If you do not have children, nephews or nieces, you are not really catered for at that time of year in the theatre. I thought this is a really great Christmas stocking-filler.

'Stephen came back to me and said 'do you know The Woman In Black?' I said 'no' but I read it overnight. I said 'it is absolutely fine but there are about 15 characters in it'. He thought he could adapt it to be a two-hander. We then went to see the book's author Susan Hill about it and said 'could we do it?' She said 'If you think you can make it work, then yes.''

So that was the initial green light for the show. Sets were created and Robin admits the whole project was a little hand-to-mouth.

He laughs: 'We thought we couldn't serve any meals because we needed the ovens to put the sound equipment on.'

Robin's target was to fill 70 seats a night for three and a half weeks, and that challenge was met very early on in the process.

He said: 'On the first night, it was completely sold out. We decided to build on it, do some extra midnight matinees and see if we could get 85 people in a night. We thought this is great. It has worked extremely well.'

Buoyed by the success, Robin and Stephen wanted to take the production on tour. Initially the pair offered it to Alan Ayckbourn but it did not fit in with the legendary playwright's plans so they opted to take it elsewhere.

Enter impresario, producer — and Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive — Peter Wilson.

Robin recalls: 'Peter had come to see another play of Stephen's and we spoke to Peter about The Woman In Black. Sight unseen, he said yes. In fact, exactly a year to the day of opening in Scarborough, we started the read-through for the production at the Lyric Hammersmith with Charles Kay and John Duttine.'

From there, the production moved on to The Strand (now the Novello) in the West End before moving to its current London home at The Fortune where it has now stayed for over 23 years.

And Robin believes if it was not for the production's slimmed-down approach and intense on-stage action, The Woman In Black would not have succeeded as much as it did.

'I am very aware that if I had £30,000 to spend back then in Scarborough and had done an eight- or nine-hander, it would have worked but I am pretty sure it would not still have been running now,' he explained. 'It is the economy and the innate theatricality of it that has made it last, as well as the chance to work with some fantastic actors.'

So many actors have played the two lead roles and it is difficult to name every single performance but Robin has highlighted some of the actors he has enjoyed working with the most include Frank Finlay, Edward Petherbridge, Joseph Fiennes and John Nettleton.

'It is extraordinary how different each pair is and it is so interesting to see what each pair of actors brings to the party. Each time there is a change-over, I always redirect it myself because it enables me to give more latitude to the characters,' said Robin.

But the production is not just about the set, actors and plot. Robin said the other really important element of The Woman In Black experience is the audience.

He explains: 'One of the elements is that so many young people come to see it. We now have an army of wonderful teachers all over the country who bring their pupils. You get some who are coming back for the ninth time with their students. It has become something of an event that can be joyfully repeated.'

The show has also proved to be a hit all over the globe with Robin directing versions in Japan (in Japanese), Australia, New Zealand, America, Singapore, Hong Kong and India.

'It is extraordinary how it has proved popular with different cultures. I remember getting off a plane in New Zealand and I was talking to one of the passengers who asked what I was doing. I explained I was directing Woman In Black and he said that was fantastic. He was taken to see it by his aunt at the age of nine in London 17 years ago,' recalls Robin.

The classic story even enjoyed success in a whole new genre with the 2011 movie, produced by a revived Hammer film studios and starring Daniel Radcliffe, which received a generally positive welcome from critics and audiences alike. It was such a hit at the box office that there has even been talk of a screen sequel.

Did Robin see the big-screen version as a bad thing? 'I don't regard the film as a rival because it is a totally different being. The story is so different. I would regard it as a separate thing but it is good because it has helped to get the brand out there,' he said.

Meanwhile Robin believes Norwich audiences are in for a real treat with the current cast Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden who will take on the two main.

He said: 'They have both played the part in the West End but with different partners which brings a new dimension to the piece. They were both fantastic when they did it before but yet they have managed to bring a whole new chemistry to the piece when they work together.'

t The Woman In Black, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 11-17, £22.50-£5.50, 01603 630000,


t Susan Hill wrote The Woman In Black in 1983 as a gothic horror about a menacing spectre that haunts a small English town, foreshadowing the death of children. Recently she explained that a period living on the Suffolk coast in the 1970s inspired her. 'I borrowed a house facing the sea which had a shingle beach. The sea on shingle is quite noisy but when you dropped down off the path there was a wall and, once you got on to the marshes, the sound of the sea went and it was quiet except for the slight moan of the wind and reed beds that make a dry rattling sound. And when dusk came there was always a slightly odd light…'

t The book was adapted into a play by Stephen Mallatratt. In this version, an older Kipps enlists a young actor to help him tell the story of the Woman in Black, hoping that this will help him to move on from those events and exorcise the ghost. The actor plays the part of the young Arthur Kipps while Kipps plays the roles of the people he met.

t A BBC TV adaptation was produced in 1989, with a screenplay by the distinguished film and television writer Nigel Kneale, best known as the creator of the Quatermass science-fiction serials.

t There have also been two radio adaptations. In 1993, Five Live broadcast a four-part adaptation of the novel starring Robert Glenister as young Arthur Kipps and John Woodvine as the character's older self. And in 2004 Radio 4 broadcast a 56 minute version starring James D'Arcy.

t Last year's big screen version, Starring Daniel Ratcliffe, was produced by the re-born Hammer Horror studio and directed by James Watkins with a script adapted from Susan Hill's novel by Jane Goldman, the wife of Jonathan Ross.

t By coincidence, Adrian Rawlins, who played the Arthur character in the 1989 BBC version, also played Daniel Radcliffe's onscreen father, James Potter, in the Harry Potter films.