How the Woman in Black came home to Yorkshire

Best-selling books have a ready-made audience so it's no surprise many are adapted for the stage. Jacob Lotinga reports on The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill's novel is back on stage in Yorkshire.
The Woman in Black, adapted from Susan Hill's novel is back on stage in Yorkshire.

People have always loved a good ghost story. One of the most popular – and best-selling – spooky novels of recent times, The Woman in Black, gripped readers and was successfully adapted for both stage and film.

The play version, which has its roots in Scarborough nearly three decades ago, is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week.

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Director Robin Herford first commissioned the theatre adaptation of Susan Hill’s best-selling ghost story in 1987 when he was artistic director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. He says he is “really happy” to be bringing the play to Leeds after 27 years on London’s West End – not to mention tours that have taken in Tokyo and South America.

Herford and co-stars of the horror story David Acton and Matthew Spencer were taking a well-earned coffee break between their first – warmly received – matinee and the evening performance at the Quarry Theatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

Acton who plays the tormented solicitor Mr Kipps, agrees. “I’m delighted to be here in the theatre and I like Leeds very much.”

Co-star Spencer – who plays an actor who helps to dramatise Kipps’ haunting tale – adds: “It’s nice to perform a play so close to where it’s set. You feel like the play’s coming home, and hopefully the audience have an added connection with it.”

Both the original novel and the theatre adaptation have a Yorkshire connection. Mr Herford said: “Susan Hill, who wrote the novel, was born in Scarborough and lived the first 17 years of her life there, I think.”

The veteran West End director also praised Yorkshire theatregoers for their frankness: “You get an honest response from a Yorkshire audience, and happily it seems that they’ve given this the thumbs-up.”

Co-stars Matthew Spencer and David Acton are now seven weeks into a UK tour that will keep them together on stage until June 2017.

Herford says that he changes the West End cast every nine months. Why? “It’s exhausting.”

Acton agrees, saying of The Woman in Black: “It’s two hours of concentration. At the end of a nine-month run, my wife said that I looked very tired.”

Stephen Mallatratt’s theatre adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel seems especially taxing for a pair of actors. Acton says that the hardest part, for him, was playing so many characters – a total of seven. Spencer says of the touring actor’s life: “The idea of being on tour to my non-actor friends seems utterly bonkers and crazy.”

He adds that, with an 11-month-old son called Laurie he’s lucky that his Doncaster-born wife was a former actor herself who understands the demands of acting, and sometimes joins him on tour. Herford, who read philosophy at St Andrews University before training as an actor at Bristol Theatre School, said: “A life in the theatre is quite a risky proposition.”

While securing interesting roles as an actor – or finding success as a director – may be “a gamble”, as he puts it. This is not at all true of going to see The Woman in Black.

The show runs in Leeds until tomorrow and has already frightened seven million theatregoers. Why not give it a try?

The Woman in Black is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until October 29. Tickets 0113 213 7700 or