For 27 years, I have passed on this one mainly because ghosts and horror are not really my thing. Not for the first time, I have been terribly wrong. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, written in Gothic style, is ingenious and literate. It is very different from the original and from the film version, being uniquely theatrical and indeed partly about the structure and presentation of a work of theatre. Defying expectations, there are very few superficial shocks and only basic special effects. The tension emanates from the writing and the performances. Enjoyment of the production was the icing on the cake, because the main reason for my attendance was to meet the actors who will be taking the play on tour, two very welcoming and genial gents indeed. Here is my account of the meeting, originally written for The Reviews Hub…
INTERVIEW: David Acton and Matthew Spencer talk about taking ghosts on the road
David Acton and Matthew Spencer are not the first actors ro appear in the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Over the last 27 years, shows have come and gone at London’s famous Theatre Royal Drury Lane, but, across the road from its stage door at the Fortune Theatre, this one production has been scaring audiences out of their wits throughout that time and it continues to go strong. Now another production of it is about to embark upon a long national tour, the two actors having already stepped into their roles in the West End. Stephen Bates went to meet them after.
The actors’ 34-venue marathon will take them from Inverness to Exeter, Belfast to Norwich and most places in between. When the tour ends in Cardiff, it will be mid-Summer 2017. They had never met prior to rehearsals and both admit that their prime concern when signing up for the tour was that they would not get on, in which case. Spencer says: “the next nine months would feel like two years.” Happily, their fears were unfounded and they are happy that the essential on-stage chemistry is there.
This is quite a scary play, so does performing it give them nightmares? Spencer confesses: ” I had a few nightmares while we were rehearsing this…I find that, especially if you’re dealing with plays that have a kind of dark theme, the rehearsal process is the time… you’re doing it all day for two or three days in a row, that’s the time when you can have nightmares and I did have a few nightmares about squeaky things. I mean I had the usual actor’s anxiety/nightmares, but also things from the play, definitely.”
Asked if they believe in ghosts themselves, Acton replies quickly “No, I don’t think I do” adding later:”but I think I’d like to, it’s one of those things I’d never rule out…I’d love to see one and then I would prove myself wrong.,,it’s hard not to believe that they don’r exist somewhere, somehow”. Spencer nods agreement.
Acton delights in telling how this production first emerged, almost by accident, from the bar in Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1987. Few could have predicted then that it would have a West End run that is second only to The Mousetrap for non-musicals. So how do the actors explain its longevity? Both are clear that the secret lies in the fact that it offers far more than merely superficial thrills. Acton thinks that it is a very literate play, adding: “it’s about theatre, it deals with themes of loss and death, I think it’s a very sad story”
Hill’s novel has been turned into a film, but people find the stage version very different, Spencer explaining: “what I love about this version is that, even if people know the story, it’s a reimagining of that story and told in a different way, so, even if you know it intimately, you’re offered something new in the form that it’s told.” The novel is now on GCSE syllabuses and the actors are expecting that students will help to fill seats on the tour, which includes some very large houses.
Acton, a seasoned Shakespearean, is returning to the role of Arthur Kipps that he first played here at the Fortune for nine months, four years ago, he quips: “still playing the old man, no chance of playing the young one, that’s gone”. He adds: “I loved doing it so much the first time that I wondered would it be nice to do it again?…and when the opportunity came up, I did jump at it, because it’s on tour, playing different theatres with someone new… and, actually it is such a pleasure to play and…from the inside of the play, just in terms of the quality of the writing, it’s a joy to speak and a joy to play.” He continues to enthuse: “it is seamless, with with bits of Susan Hill being lifted out (from the novel) going into bits that Stephen Mallatratt has invented,,,he has got her tone absolutely spot on.”
The programme reveals it, so nothing is given away by saying that the production is a two-hander, Mallatratt’s ingenuity having compressed ten or so characters from the novel. Ironically, Acton has neither met nor even seen the person who appears uncredited as the woman of the play’s title. A suggestion of the supernatural perhaps?
Lighting, sound and fog effects play a big part in the production, but they have not given the actors any problems so far. Spencer says: “there’s actually not really many special effects…I’ve done plays that are far more technically complicated and intricate than this, but what’s wonderful is that it feels like it’s complicated and intricate even though it isn’t”. He was in the original cast of Headlong’s 1984, so he is well placed to judge how technically difficult a production is.
Becoming the modern equivalent of vagabond actors may have its drawbacks, but a month’s break during the panto season will allow Acton and Spencer to renew acquaintances with loved ones. They relish the prospect of what is in store for them. Acton enthuses: “I love touring, I love train journeys, my motorbike, airports…landladies and you can leave them after a week”. Spencer admits that there are pros and cons to touring, but says “the doing of the show I find much more satisfying on tour…you get to know a show very well and the audiences will be different everywhere you go.”
Performance/interview date: 18 August 2016
Photo: Tristram Kenton