Stephen Joseph’s secret weapon

Everybody knows the runaway success of The Woman in Black. But few people know this play’s humble origins.

West End: Glamour. Glitz. Big casts. Lavish sets. Celebrity names up in big flashing lights. Uber-expensive special effects. Live music, featuring the songs of Queen/Westlife/Jedward. One thousand Vietnamese children dressed in rags swarm the stage. (The last one has so far only been done in a Litttle Britain sketch, but I’m sure they’re working on it.)

Fringe theatre: No glamour. No glitz. No celebrity names. Little or no set. Tiny cast: talented drama graduates if you’re lucky, pretentious students if you’re not. If it’s a good play, compensate for all of this with good acting, a good script, innovative directing, and careful and cunning use of basic lighting and sound effects.

Stephen Joseph theatre: Where Alan Ayckbourn does his stuff.

These three don’t really have much in common with each other. Or do they? Let’s take The Woman in Black, which I’ve just seen for the second time, this time at Darlington. This play is now in its 21st year at the Fortune Theatre, whilst simultaneously touring the country to packed theatres. Oh, and it’s apparently the 5th longest-running West End show of all time, between Blood Brothers and Cats. In short, this is what every producer dreams of.

So, how do they do it? Well, one quick observation of the top ten is the absence of two kinds of show: compilation musicals (that’s musicals that use the back catalogue of an existing band); and stage versions of well-known films. These two kinds of musical might keep your accountant very happy, but the evidence is that if you want to be the next Mousetrap you’ve got to be more original. Quite a lot of adaptations from books though, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is no exception. First written in 1983, this has been very popular, spawning a two radio adaptations, a TV series and, of course, last year’s film with Daniel Radcliffe. So far, it’s ticking all the West End boxes.

But beyond that, the similarities end. If this was a typical West End production, one might expect a three-storey house on stage, a cast of 25 terrified villagers, and an on-stage swamp. But the thing this production goes for for could not be more different: a cast of three, a very basic set, and next to no special effects. In order to make this work, writer Stephen Mallatratt takes a major liberty with the story: it is re-told as a play within a play. In this stage version, the book’s central character, Arthur Kripps, is now an old man. He wishes to tell his story to his family, and has hired an actor for a day to coach him. The story ends up acted out with the Actor playing the young Arthur Kripps and the old Arthur Kripps playing everything else. Out goes an elaborate set and in comes a few chairs, a basket case and some strategic sound and lighting to do the job instead. This sort of staging is far more common in a tiny fringe venues than a big West End theatres.

As a result, the beginning of the play could not be more different from the book. It is almost farcical – the old Arthur reads the first page of his story again and again, stubbornly ignoring the actors pleas to project his voice. There are only small hints of the terrible memories from Arthur’s past that he wishes to tell. When they finally get round to telling the story from the past, it starts off as the sort of scrappy performance you’d expect from a production in early rehearsal. It is only towards the end of the first half that Susan Hill’s story gains any real momentum. If this description of the play makes the whole thing sound unworkable, I can assure that anyone who’s seen this will tell you the opposite. The writer and director didn’t always know this though. When this play was being rehearsed prior to its first performance, it must have been a huge gamble.

Anyway, the rest is history. I saw this at Darlington, with Julian Forsyth playing Arthur Kripps and Antony Eden making a remarkable comeback following his disastrous invasion of the Suez Canal and resignation as Prime Minister to play the Actor. I don’t think I’ve seen any audience reaction like this. You know when the first horror films came out you have cinema audiences screaming in terror? Well, I thought this practice had thoroughly died out now that every teenager has reputedly seen all 549 films in the Saw and Hostel franchises. Not so here. When the Actor approaches the door and a scream comes out of nowhere, or the woman appears out of the curtains to deliver her curse, the audience gasps as one. There was a school party in front me when I watched, and it looked like they all thoroughly enjoyed it. And that’s great, because The Woman in Black is not only a great showcase for how good theatre can be, but how different it can be from film and television.

But there is one other hugely-overlooked factor that I think contributes to this play’s success, and that is where the play began: the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (and not the current one either – the old site in a then-unused part of the local Westwood college). Yes, the most successful single play from the theatre that is considered synonymous with Alan Ayckbourn is one where Alan Ayckbourn had next to no involvement. But if you’re familiar with the style of plays there, you can see how this influenced the play. Because as this is a theatre in the round, they can’t use elaborate scenery, or any kind of scenery. What they have to do instead is make full use of sound and lighting to set the scene. And Woman in Black director Robin Herford, previously one of Ayckbourn’s favourite actors and acting Artistic Director during Ayckbourn’s stint at the National Theatre, must have surely used his experiences in the Round to devise such an effective production. You see this done in Fringe theatre too, but the Stephen Joseph Theatre is the master of this.

So, here’s my suggestion. Now that this has reached its 25th anniversary, how about touring back to the theatre where it all began to see how it was originally done. There are a few things done in the current version that only work on the end-stage, but it was a smash hit in the round once, it can be a smash hit again. Even if this was to be shown in the Stephen Joseph’s low season, it doubtless would sell out for however long it ran. In the meantime, this is an important lesson that the minimalist approach used in Fringe theatres should not be looked down on as the poor cousin of West End mega-productions. The Woman in Black proves that this style works in the West End too.