Going behind the scenes on The Woman in Black before Northampton dates
The temperature drops in the room as I sit down to write. The hairs on the back of my neck rise and there are goosebumps on my arms as though some foul, unseen, force is watching me.
It’s almost dark in the empty theatre but you feel her presence, her eyes watching you. I’m here to meet The (cast of) Woman In Black and my heart is pumping.
We’re at the Fortune Theatre, in London, where The Woman In Black has been terrifying audiences for 27 years, ahead of a new national tour. It comes to Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre on October 10 for a week. But the question is - are you brave enough?
Not only do we have to contend with the production’s malevolent star making an appearance, but also the nightmarish possibility that the theatre’s own famous, star-struck ghost, who haunts the hospitality bar and one of the boxes, and has been known to follow the show’s leading lady onto the stage, may make an early appearance.
Robin Herford’s iconic production of Susan Hill’s horrifying story, was turned into an award-winning stage adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt, premiering in Scarborough in 1987. Two years later it moved to the Fortune and has been here ever since.
The touring production stars veteran actor David Acton as Arthur Kipps and Matthew Spencer as “The Actor” but, between them, they take on a all the other characters who appear in this dark and disturbing story.
And what a tale. A man haunted by what he saw at a desolate and lonely house, turns to an actor for help in telling his reminiscences to his family.
At first the memories are so traumatic that he can barely utter a sound but, through the help of roleplay, on the stage of an empty theatre, watched by its own ghosts, he relives that terrible time.
And through sleight of hand, masterfully created by the show’s lighting and sound designers, Kevin Sleep and Gareth Owen, audiences are plunged into a night of unimaginable horror.
As a set book in some schools for GCSE and A Level the audience is frequently filled with highly suggestible students whose screams (from the girls mainly) sets the pace for the whole evening.
So, Matthew Spencer, do you believe in ghosts?
“I’d love to think that they are real,” he laughed. “I don’t really like being in the stage right wing at the Fortune because there’s this terrible cold feeling”.
The pair fear upsetting resident ghosts in theatres during the tour. An industry steeped in suspicion, it seems pretty much every venue has one.
But what is it that attracts fans, some frequent returners, who know the story inside out?
Downton Abbey and Shakespearean actor, David Acton, who reprises his role of Kipps after appearing in a 2011 production, knows the answer: “It is an extraordinarily clever and brilliant play.
“It’s probably more clever than Steven Mallatratt ever realised it was when he wrote it. The format he chose to tell a story comes out of nothing.
“An empty theatre with just two people, one of whom is an actor who can’t act, and out of this arises this extraordinary story, in beautifully written language, with myriad different characters and different locations which you can almost visibly see as they are created by the imagination.
“Also it is a touching story, a moving story. It has a great sadness about it. About loss and the loss of a child; there’s the chill factor, the shrieks, bumps and squeals (not to mention the demonic rocking chair-ed).
“All that is marvellous, but there’s also laughter, pleasure and pain and the theatricality embodies all those elements.”
Matthew (1984, War Horse) adds: “For me, you can see the film with Daniel Radcliffe, and have a good experience, you can enjoy the book, but there’s something in this play which is about something that you can’t see anywhere else but in a theatre.
“And there’s something magical about two people, a chair and a skip and a few lights, creating all of those different worlds and people and capturing the imagination.”
“I say, in the play, how are we going to create that?” says David. “Through imagination is Matthew’s answer. It’s not denied or pretended. We play to a theatre but we also play - within the story - to an empty theatre. Terribly clever.”
Matthew adds: “I think every venue on the tour will alter the dynamic and bring something new to the piece. It’s very much part of this - the Fortune - theatre, because it has been here so long, but you take it out on tour and it is a whole different experience.”
“It’s terribly good for actors to tour in a play,” says David. “You play a whole variety of houses you really get to know each other and get to know how to play the play anywhere and that gives you a knowledge about it which is terrific.”
How difficult is it, I ask, to recreate scenes horror and fear which we all take for granted on screen though the use of special effects?
“This play is so clever that for the first 20 minutes you are in a world of light,” says Matthew. “There are lots of laughs so that by the time you start to rack up the tension, you’ve had about half an hour of having fun with the audience.
“You’re all on the same side, and in it together….and then you go: ‘ Right, now we’re going for a real journey.
“I think for anyone who has children, then the theme of the play can be upsetting or disturbing. I have a very small boy so I can imagine the horror.
“The structure of the story is so brilliantly constructed that I never worry about whether the audience is going to be scared today. I look forward to it. You know that if you’ve got a few laughs at the beginning then they’re really going to scream later on”.
“The screams are fantastic,” added David. “When we play the big houses, with the schools’ audiences, we find they love screaming! So they scream again! Then they look at each other and scream again!! And they giggle and do it again. It can get a bit rowdy.”
“We live for those moments,” said Matthew. “It’s great.”
David is constantly darting off stage to return as a different character - from landed gentry, an old solicitor, a carriage driver and more.
“I love them all. They’re all great characters. The problem is they all come from Yorkshire and have to have their own accents and characteristics!”
Matthew first saw The Woman In Black when he was at school doing his A Levels. He was one of those boys egging the girls in his party to scream. After drama school he saw it again at the Fortune and was excited to be asked to audition for the role of The Actor.
“We’re now touring until June next year. All that time - stuck with him!” laughs Matthew, prodding David.
“Ha! Luckily we get on very well!”
Go see The Woman In Black and be prepared for the fright of your life.
The Woman in Black is staged from Monday October 10 to Saturday October 15. Tickets for the show can be booked by calling the box office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk.