Apologies if this piece is a little rambling. I’ve not had much sleep. I saw The Woman in Black last night in Scarborough.
I saw the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, one of the loveliest, most historic venues in the county, but after the show I had to drive home to Bradford from Scarborough on the dark and winding road and round every corner I was convinced the Woman in Black was going to be waiting to jump out at me. That’s the terror the show strikes into the hearts of the audience and the reason it has remained a scary success since its debut in Scarborough in 1987.
Stephen Mallatratt was the actor-turned-writer who was challenged, in 1987, by Robin Herford, to come up with a play, a ‘Christmas stocking filler’, that would work with no more than four actors and a minimal set – there was a little money left over in the budget. Mallatratt gave Herford, who was standing in for artistic director Alan Ayckbourn while he directed in London, a play requiring little more than a basket, a coat rack and two actors. Based on the Susan Hill novella, the play premiered in Scarborough on December 11, 1987.
The tiny play had a massive impact. A three-week sell out run in Scarborough could scarcely have indicated just what a piece of theatrical history those early audiences lucky enough to get a ticket had witnessed. A year later the production moved to the Lyric Hammersmith and the following year to the West End, where it has played at the Fortune Theatre since 1989. It is one of the longest-running plays in British theatrical history and has now played to over seven million people.
It is entirely appropriate, then, for the play to return to Scarborough, where it all began, as the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrates its 60th year. The latest production features a father and son team in the shape of Christopher Godwin and Tom Godwin.
The Susan Hill story, later turned into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe, cleverly uses a play-within-a-play framing device. In the play, Christopher Godwin’s Arthur Kipps is hoping to receive some guidance from “The Actor”, played by Tom, on recounting the story of a terrifying time he spent in a country house attempting to sort out the affairs of a recently deceased woman.
Christopher Godwin says: “The other great thing that Mallatratt does is tell the audience exactly what is going to be required of them at a very early stage. They are sucked into the theatricality of the piece and asked to use their imagination, which means the audience are really with us.”
Christopher Godwin has appeared in The Woman in Black previously, 15 years ago in the West End. This production in Scarborough, set to send a chill through the collective spines of audiences all summer, is the first time in the history of the play that it’s been presented by a father and son acting team. Christopher says: “There’s almost a sixth sense between us, we interact with each other on a higher plane than we would with other actors. Having said that, for the first two days I was ‘dad’ but then I was just another actor. He keeps surprising me.”
Tom chips in with “just keeping you on your toes”, and adds “we’re in the business of keeping things fresh, living in the moment”.
Later, on stage, the special father and son chemistry was as evident as it was during the interview, when the two clearly enjoyed each other’s company. For both actors, coming to Scarborough with this production is a homecoming. Tom was born in the town while his dad Christopher was appearing in rep, acting with the Stephen Joseph Theatre Company from 1971 to 1978.
“We had a long time up here and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” says Christopher. “It’s been terrific to come back. I had to go to London for the career, but I did go with a lot of regret and have maintained a contact with the town, through Alan and other friends here.”
So it’s clear there is a strong pull for both dad and son to return to Scarborough, but the opportunity to play The Woman in Black is the real pull. Tom says: “It’s a really well written piece of theatre – and that goes a hell of a long way. It’s a cracking story by Susan Hill and a really clever adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt.”
“We’re up there saying we’re going to pretend that this is happening. Now, you know it’s not real and we know it’s not real, but between us, we can make it real,” says Christopher. Tom, following his dad’s lead, picks up on the notion: “Absolutely, that’s why it’s so effective. Theatre is a lie that illustrates the truth.”
Except it’s not true. The Woman in Black is just a story. Right? Right?