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Still spooky after all these years

PUBLISHED: 10:00 21 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:25 01 July 2010

Emma Lee

The classic spine-chiller, the Woman in Black, is back in Norwich. Robert Demeger has more than 1,000 performances of the play under his belt. He tells EMMA LEE why it still has us on the edge of our seats.

The classic spine-chiller, the Woman in Black, is back in Norwich. Robert Demeger has more than 1,000 performances of the play under his belt. He tells EMMA LEE why it still has audiences on the edge of their seats.

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If you go down to the Theatre Royal next week, you're sure of a big fright. That's because the classic spine-chiller, the Woman in Black, is making a welcome return.

The play, based on the ghost story by Susan Hill, has spooked thousands of theatre goers, both in London's West End and around the country, for 21 years now.

Set in the salt marshes of East Anglia, it follows the supernatural encounters of junior solicitor Arthur Kipps as he sorts through the affairs of Alice Drablow, the former owner of the isolated Eel Marsh House.

The story twists and turns, keeping you on the edge of your seat. The suspense builds during the course of the play, as Kipps starts catching glimpses of a young woman with a wasted face. When he starts to question local people, he encounters a wall of silence and eventually confronts her and a terrifying story unravels.

The setting isn't the play's only East Anglian link - the West End run is produced by PW Productions, which was founded by Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Peter Wilson.

This touring version, which opens on Monday, stars Robert Demeger and Peter Bramhill. It's Robert's fifth stint in the Woman in Black and he has more than 1,000 performances in the play under his belt. But, as he explains, Arthur Kipps is a role that's a gift to an actor.

“It's just such a wonderful part,” he says. “Looking at it selfishly, as an actor you get to play somebody who's had this terrible thing happen to him some years before. He has to get it off his chest, so he employs a young actor to help him tell the story and he plays the other parts. There's some humour in there as well - it's a good acting exercise.

“I think Arthur Kipps is one of my favourite characters because of the variety it gives me and the time on stage. If you like acting, you like having lots of lines to say.

“This is the fifth time I've done it, but it doesn't sound too bad if you say that's in 14 years,” he laughs, chatting to Event from Glasgow. “I must have done 1,200 to 1,300 performances of it now.”

Robert is an accomplished stage and screen actor. He trained at the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama and his CV includes Royal Shakespeare Company productions, roles in practically every long-running TV drama serial you can think of, including London's Burning, Lovejoy, Minder, Inspector Morse, the Bill and Holby City. And he's appeared on the big screen in the Young Poisoner's Handbook and Wuthering Heights.

But acting wasn't the first profession he chose.

“I went in to teaching,” he says. “I suppose like a lot of people I didn't know what else to do. I did it for a year and thought 'I can't do this for another 43 years'. Then I realised I had always wanted to be an actor do it, but just didn't know it. I did acting as an amateur and thought I would give it a go and see how it worked out. And I've done just over 30 years of it, which is wonderful,” he says.

Is it tough being one half of the cast and having to play multiple characters?

“Well it's quite hard work. If I'm not talking the other guy is. It's just over two hours and we've got a lot to say. On the other hand, people say 'are you not exhausted', especially if you've done a matinee as well. But it's like playing sport - you come off stage and you're fired up with adrenaline and want to go out - then a couple of hours later you get tired.

“We do eight shows a week and we're still pretty perky,” he laughs.

While he obviously knows the character of Kipps inside out, Robert says that there's no problem keeping the play new and exciting when you're out on tour.

“What keeps it fresh is going to a different city or town every week. Every Monday night is like the first night. Some theatres are huge, some are small, some are new, some are old.”

What does he think gives the play its enduring appeal?

“It's a two hander, and I can't think of any other two hander that will sell out without someone from Holby City and someone from EastEnders in it. The play sells itself. The audience know it's going to be scary, and even if they've seen it before, they come to watch their friends being scared,” he says.

The play is set in a non-specific part of East Anglia. But being familiar with Norfolk, Robert says it's a possibility that author Susan Hill had been inspired by the county.

“I've stood on the marshes near Wells and at Cley and you see the mudflats and it wouldn't surprise me if Susan Hill had that sort of landscape in mind. There's even a mention of Norwich in the text.”

Robert is looking forward to returning to Norfolk - he's played the Theatre Royal on several occasions and has a friend who lives in Norwich. And you might spot him snooping round some second hand book shops while he's here.

“I'm not one of those actors that is in bed until lunch time. On a show like this you have to have your energies right. I like to get up and out and do things and see a bit of the city,” he says.

“There are a couple of second hand book shops I like in Norwich so I hope they're still there. On tour I'm getting through about four books a week. I'm very much a book person,” he laughs.

t The Woman in Black is at Norwich Theatre Royal from June 21-26, £20.50-£5, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

THE THRILL OF THEATRICAL CHILLS

The Woman in Black has been playing at the Fortune Theatre continually since the summer of 1989. The play had its premiere at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre as a Christmas ghost story for 1987.

But the play is perfectly suited to the cramped, claustrophobic Fortune - it has just 432 seats - and the actors can afford to whisper their opening lines.

But why do we love being spooked at the theatre so much? Over these years, we have estimated that seven million people have seen The Woman In Black either in the West End or on its many tours of the UK.

Clearly there is still a market for stories that chill, even in this hi-tech entertainment age when old fashioned theatrical devises to shock and seem a little, well, old fashioned.

The latest West End scary play is Ghost Stories, which has just opened at the Lyric Hammersmith, and which claims to be the scariest theatrical experience ever conceived.

So scary, in fact, that publicity advises that the show “contains moments of extreme shock and tension” and that “pregnant women or anyone of a nervous disposition should think seriously before attending”.

The show is a collaboration between League of Gentleman writer Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the actor and illusionist behind many of the stage shows of Derren Brown.

There is a fine art to scaring audiences. Some risk over-the-top crassness. The Woman In Black relies on little more than the well-timed slamming of a door to send an audience out of its wits.

It might seem ludicrously lo-tech; but it's solid, theatrical craftsmanship that leaves the audience's imaginations to do the work and they begin to frighten themselves.

Can that be recreated on-screen? The Woman In Black has previously been adapted by the BBC and now it is set for the big screen with the re-born Hammer Horror studio announcing a 3D version is in production to be directed by James Watkins with a script adapted from Susan Hill's novel by Jane Goldman, the wife of Jonathan Ross who recently adapted the comic book Kick-Ass for the big screen.

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