The Woman in Black, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill, is a chilling ghost story that achieves its spellbinding effects through just two actors and a bare minimum of props.
First seen at the Strand (Feb. 1989), then the Playhouse (April 1989), it subsequently moved to the Fortune (June 1989), where it has remained ever since.
Theatrenow braved the old stone stairs, lit by guttering candles, that led to the snug dressing room where actors Robert Demeger (a reassuring, father-like figure whose mustache lends him an Edwardian air that suits his stage persona well) and Timothy Watson (a well-groomed, deep-voiced young actor with a striking physical resemblance to Dirk Bogarde) were waiting to describe what acting in a long-running successful ghost story is really like.
How does it feel to be part of such a long-running show, and to what degree do you feel bound by a 'house style' in playing it? "We're the 24th couple in The Woman in Black, but we've both been in it before — in each case working with another actor. The producers like having actors back again, but the rule is that 'couples' don't return together. "We've also toured in it — actors get to tour for three months as well as playing at the Fortune — so when our run ends on 1st February, the new cast will be used to playing their characters. The great thing about this play is that whether its staged in an old theatre (which suits it best) or a modern one, it still works, and we get great feedback from members of the audience after the show — there have been lots of occasions when people have come back, during a week's visit by the production to a regional theatre, and brought their friends or family to see it.
"As for us playing the roles for a second time, there's a completely new dynamic when you work with a different actor, and as for a 'house style,' we are in any case encouraged by Robin [director Robin Herford] to bring our own interpretation to the parts, and he has a great knack of making each new couple feel as if the production were being staged for the first time."
Presumably, in a two-man show — unless you count the ghost, which we'll come onto later — you're very much thrown together? It must be a fairly intense professional relationship? "Yes! There have been some cases of actors who didn't get on well together, and it rather showed on stage, in that their performances were not the best this theatre has seen.
"Being in this play — or any two-hander really, without getting on with the other actor must be purgatory! We're not in each other's pockets, but we do have a drink and unwind quite often, and when you get on well and trust each other you can, obviously, be there for each other. No performance on any stage ever goes absolutely flawlessly — that's something inherent in live theatre, and it keeps you on your toes — so if one of you does mess up on something, you can rely on the other helping you get back on track."
Other than the stage chemistry between the cast, what's the secret of The Woman in Black's success? "It's a good story, simply told. We have the bare minimum of props with which to tell what is, in the best sense of the word, an old-fashioned ghost story — telling the tale of The Woman in Black is rather like telling a story round a fire; the plot and the telling of it may be very skillful, but a lot of the work is done by the listeners' imagination."
"The simplicity works in our favor — we're the opposite of all these very high tech shows, especially the musicals, with their electronics and special effects, and people respond to that. Especially school audiences, which tend to be more vocal in any case, and which scream far louder than mainly adult audiences! Adult audiences tend to be more guarded in their reactions — but they still jump out of their seats on a couple of occasions."
It certainly is a very scary play: and given the Woman in Black herself is so terrifying a figure.... "Woman in Black?" jokes Robert. "What woman? Oh God, you didn't see . . . Her?"
[Seeing the Woman in Black, as the play makes clear, is a warning of impending disaster, and Robert always gets a rise out of school audiences in post-play discussions, by pretending that there's no actress playing the part — a fiction borne out by the program, where the credit for the actress who plays the ghostly woman is carefully tucked away in a discrete corner.]
Given the Woman in Black is so terrifying, are there any ghost stories or strange goings-on associated with the production itself? "The wing, stage right, has a certain atmosphere," says Timothy, "and a number of people have disliked being in that area. The thing is this theatre backs on to a church — a Church of Scotland building, and there's a staircase behind one of the stage walls, so if you stand there during any point in the evening, and there's someone coming or going in the church, you hear what seem to be phantom footsteps walking down the wall!
"Because the play is a ghost story, a journalist once took a bet that he could last the night in the Fortune theatre, on his own. Any theatre can be pretty creepy when it's deserted and very quiet, of course . . . "
Did he last the night? "No! He ran out, petrified!"
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow