The Woman in Black: Articles

The Woman in Black

by Stephen Mallatratt
This article was written by The Woman in Black's adaptor Stephen Mallatratt for the Stephen Joseph Theatre's tenth anniversary revival of The Woman in Black.
It seems more than ten years since Robin Herford and I were watching the first performance of The Woman in Black in the old, tiny studio at the Westwood Theatre, wondering if we'd got it right.

I think it was an afternoon show - a preview presumably - with an audience of school-kids and a few faithful regulars. I've a vivid memory of the sound desk which was at the rear of the space we grandly called the auditorium, and so much a part of the audience that the kids at the back could stick their chewing gum to it. It was a reel-to reel with great clunking switches that sounded as if we had the timpani section of the LSE in the team.

Neither of us had done a ghost play before, and we suspected that even if we did 'get it right' we might not know it. By the end there seemed to be a mood of concentration in the audience - by which I mean that there was only a minimal sniggering and crisp-eating from the kids - and I overhead a teacher talking approvingly about 'dramatic structure' - so it seemed at least someone had been fooled. That evening - the first night proper - as the black drapes twitched and parted, and the sound desk snare drum clattered away, there were one or two gasps and stifled shrieks, which again hinted we'd got something right.

But how to know? What is this show after all? It's not a comedy or tragedy, it's not a thriller in the usual sense - how do you classify it except as 'entertainment', and entertainment implies laughter of which there is precious little. 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 metal chairs a lot of black cloth and a fair bit of doubt.

The first night reviews gave us the insights that reviews generally do - The Times saying it was probably rather good and The Guardian saying it was certainly bad - but the next day 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 - this by shifting the percussion desk out to the adjacent bar - and we'd added three or four late night performances, selling out every time.

If you judge a show on box office it does seem we got something right then - but from this distance it's hard to choose between luck and judgement. The learning happened after that - watching and listening to audiences, honing and improving the show. It's been very much Robin's creature here in the UK, as he's kept faith with it, and directed nearly all of the home productions. There have, however, been hundreds of overseas versions since - at the last count in 41 countries - with, we can assume, vast differences in interpretation and quality. I saw a laughable and entirely unfrightening production in America, yet went with Susan to see a dark, fearful and quite wonderful one in Barcelona.

It's good to see it back where it began in Scarborough. In some ways I'll miss that little studio with all its inconveniences and irritations -whatever it lacked in facilities it made up for in atmosphere, and I sense some of that atmosphere travels with the show. When I watch it now my mind's ear can still hear clunks from the sound desk as it anticipates the cues. A genuine haunting of a sort.

Stephen Mallatratt, 1997

Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.