The Woman in Black: History

by Simon Murgatroyd

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In 1987 in a small studio theatre, audiences in Scarborough became the first to fall under the spell of a genuine theatrical phenomenon.

Since the Stephen Joseph Theatre first staged Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella
The Woman In Black, it has become one of the most successful plays ever to be staged in the West End and has gone onto global recognition and success. Yet it all began as a low budget Christmas filler in Scarborough.

The Woman In Black
was first published in 1983, an unexpected change of genre for the noted Scarborough born author Susan Hill which would draw praise and critical acclaim over the years for her version of the English ghost story.

In 1986, the late writer and actor Stephen Mallatratt read the ghost story whilst on holiday in Greece and was immediately taken by the piece.

“A Greek beach must be the most inappropriate place to read a story like this! But that was where I read it, and, like most people who have read it, I was very struck by it. It was a bit of a nutty idea, really. But when I got back I wrote to Susan Hill saying, either would she consider adapting it, or would she let me?”

Susan was not convinced by the idea but, in July 1986, she replied to Stephen in a letter still held by the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

“I’m amazed that you should think it remotely possible to do the book on stage, but thinking of what has been done in dramatic form, which would seem pretty unlikely, I imagine there must be a way, if you think so!”
Behind The Scenes: Ghosts
SPOILER ALERT: As anyone who has seen The Woman in Black will know, the play is haunted by a third character. From the word go, it was felt it important to not spoil the surprise whilst not breaking the acting union Equity's rules for crediting everyone involved within a production. The solution was to hide the credit in plain sight in the programme; a solution adapted for and still used to this day in production of the play. The theatre's clever credit has also been used within this article…
Citing part of the charm was that the play would be staged in her childhood home of Scarborough, she gave Stephen permission to adapt the play, but with no slot for it in the theatre that year, the idea was put on the back-burner and the script remained unwritten.

That same year, the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, began a two year sabbatical at the National Theatre. The day to day running of the theatre - including the programming - passed to Robin Herford. During the summer of 1987, he conceived the idea of a “Christmas Stocking filler” which would use the season’s remaining production budget for a seasonal ghost story staged in the 70 seat studio theatre.

Robin approached Stephen, the theatre’s resident writer, with the idea and, due to the limited budget, the proviso, “I can’t afford to have more than four actors or elaborate sets.” Stephen reminded him about his interest in
The Woman In Black, which felt to Robin like a possible solution, albeit with one glaring issue.

“I read the book and was immediately impressed by its evocative power, but it had one drawback - a list of characters numbering about a dozen. Stephen seemed unperturbed, and proceeded to write me a two-handed play, which not only solved my budgetary problems but actually enhanced the original premise of Susan’s story.”

Equally impressed was Susan Hill, who had practically forgotten about Stephen’s request from the previous year. She read the script and thought, “Good Lord, this man has actually done it... It’s very clever.”

WIth the author’s approval and a script in place, Robin took on directing duties with design by Michael Holt, lighting by Mick Thomas, sound by Jackie Staines and vision by Lesley Meade. The two acting roles were taken by Jon Strickland as Arthur Kipps and Dominic Letts as the Actor.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Stephen’s masterstroke was to transfer the action of the play to a Victorian theatre, where a young lawyer is asked to partake in the retelling of a chilling story by The Actor, who plays all the other roles. In a single stroke, Stephen had negated the staging problems of the novella, as locations - be it London or a causeway through the marshes - and characters were left to the skill of the actors, a hugely memorable sound plot and one other essential element noted by Robin: “It is the magic of theatre, made possible only by that most precious and under-used of commodities, the audience’s imagination.”
Behind The Scenes: Easter Egg
SPOILER ALERT: Further to the previous note, the original production also included an Easter Egg (or hidden reference) within the original poster for the play. The poster features the woman in black and a gravestone. By peering at the gravestone, the name Jennet Drablow - which should have read Jennet Humfrye but for a mistake in the original manuscript only spotted later - can be made out. Beneath it, noticed by most people, it is possible to make out the name 'Lesley Mead' [sic] - an actor with the Scarborough company.
The Woman In Black opened on Friday 11 December 1987 in what Robin later described as “a rough and ready” production. Both he and Stephen were unsure of whether it would work or not; a feeling Stephen still felt at the end of the first night.

“There was good solid applause at the end, and our friends said all the right things - they would, wouldn’t they? - but then we were left in a dark room with about eighty odd chairs, a lot of black cloth and a fair bit of doubt.”

The first reviews appeared on the Monday and did not offer much more clarification. The Daily Telegraph reviewer was the most enthusiastic noting the play “put the wind up its audience” and himself. The Scarborough Evening News’ reviewer had the somewhat unpleasant feeling of “the skin on the back of my neck positively crawling up onto my skull.” While The Guardian was unimpressed citing a failure “to generate any tension”, although this from a reviewer who couldn’t be bothered to proof his spieling of the writer Stephen Mallatratt, referring to him as Mallatrapp!

Critics were not going to make or break this play though. Its success was always going to be dependent on word of mouth. For one significant person, it ticked every box. Susan Hill, visiting Scarborough for only the second time in thirty years, recalled in 2008 that there, “on the first of many, many occasions, I was riveted by the play.”

She was not the only one to enjoy it. Audiences fell in love with the show, so much so that Stephen recalled the theatre could barely cope with demand.

“The next day [after the reviews] something happened that you always hope will, and so seldom does. The box office phones started to ring and queues began to form. By the end of the short run we’d squeezed in extra chairs for every performance and we’d added three or four late night performances, selling out every time.”

The play ran for just three weeks, but it had been successful far beyond anyone could ever have imagined or hoped. Susan Hill fondly recalls Alan Ayckbourn telling her that there were now two great plays adapted from ghost stories, The Turn of The Screw and The Woman In Black.

With no expectations behind it,
The Woman In Black proved to be an extraordinary success in Scarborough. Although that would merely be the start of a remarkable journey.
Behind The Scenes: Recordings
One of the most notable aspects of the original production was the sound-plot designed by Jackie Staines, which was recreated for the original West End production and used for many years. The plot also includes spoken narration of diary entries by the late actress Lesley Meade; who was also the wife of director Robin Herford. Her narration still plays in the West End production to this day as does the scream of a young boy - a scream recorded by Robin's young son, Olivier, in 1987 and for which he was paid £10 and which is still here to this day!
In January 1989, it transferred to London, eventually finding a permanent home at the Fortune Theatre where, in June 2011, it played its 9000th performance and, in 2019, it celebrated its 30th anniversary in the West End.

It is estimated the play has been seen by more than 7 million people in the UK alone since 1987 and it has been produced in more than 40 other countries around the world.

Unfortunately, this success did not feed back into the Stephen Joseph Theatre which, ordinarily, would have expected to reap the benefits and - more significantly - financial remuneration though royalties. Normally, a production contract includes a standard clause for a theatre to be remunerated if the play opens in London. However, the contract held in archive is solely between Susan Hill and Stephen Mallatratt and it states all royalties, should the play go into London, be split equally between author and adaptor. Why the SJT was not part of the contract will probably forever remain a mystery and the only revenue the theatre saw was, according to Alan Ayckbourn's biographer Paul Allen, 'limited to a percentage of Stephen Mallatratt's royalties up to a grand total of £5,000."

Those connected with the play did benefit though not least Robin Herford. Stephen Mallatratt insisted the contract include a clause that Robin had first refusal on directing future productions of the play. Ordinarily this would have been a nice gesture but with no long term repercussions. Neither Stephen nor Robin realised how successful the play would be and Robin has been associated with it ever since. He directed the West End premiere and continues to redirect the company change every year. The play has taken him around the world directing productions from the United States to Japan. The designer Michael Holt has also frequently designed for revivals and the West End production of the play.

By its tenth anniversary in 1997, the play had become firmly established in London and an undisputed success. To mark the anniversary, the SJT was granted dispensation to stage a revival in its new home in The McCarthy auditorium; this was possibly to reflect the fact the SJT had never benefited from the original production.

Robin Herford returned to direct the revival with Michael Holt designing and Lesley Meade also returning. The company featured an SJT stalwart Peter Laird as Arthur Kipps and a relative newcomer in the role of the Actor. Having worked with him in Scarborough the previous year, Robin cast the little known Martin Freeman in the role; Martin would go on to become an extraordinarily successful actor on stage and screen from playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit movies to Watson in the acclaimed BBC drama Sherlock.

In 2015, the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary and a decision was made to revive several classic premiered at the theatre: Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions, Tom Firth's Neville's Island and, naturally, The Woman in Black.

This production featured a world first for The Woman in Black with a father and son taking the roles of Arthur Kipps and the Actor - Christopher and Tom Godwin. Christopher had been a stalwart of Alan Ayckbourn's company in Scarborough during the 1970s and had created several of Alan's most famous characters - and Tom's birth had even been announced onstage by Alan! Robin again returned to direct the production which then transferred into London.

From humble beginnings,
The Woman In Black has become an extraordinary phenomenon, scaring audiences around the world. It is this which Robin Herford believes is the key to that popularity and enduring appeal almost three decades later.

“It shows you can experience fear in a theatre, which so few people believe to be possible. It’s a cracking story that deals with the supernatural, but it is conceived in very human terms.
The Woman In Black’s tragedy is a very human tragedy you can relate to. It is so clear and terrifying.”

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.