Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre crack
I usually have a built in aversion to things which are very popular – blockbuster movies and long running West End shows for example. But the funny thing is, if I ever get round to seeing them, I usually enjoy them and regret not having seen them before - The Mousetrap being one notable exception. Second only to the Agatha Christie play in its West End longevity is The Woman in Black now its 21st spine tingling year. The play has been touring almost as long and in May makes a third visit to the Everyman.
A visit to the theatre can be for many reasons – to see your favourite soap-opera star up close and doing some real acting, to enjoy a well crafted drama or whodunit or, as often as not, for a good laugh. Rarely do we go to the theatre to be scared. We can find plays to stimulate us, to excite us, to enlighten us and even to sadden us. But to scare us? There aren’t many. Pre-eminent among those rare, hair standing up on end pieces of theatre is The Woman in Black, a ghost story so scary that if half the audience isn’t screaming or if the person in the next seat isn’t sinking their finger nails into your arm, you should demand your money back.
The Woman in Black is a phenomenon. Apart from The Mousetrap (which is famous only for being famous), there is no other straight play that has run in London’s West End for so long. Now in its twenty first year in town, it has also been performed all over the world including including a long run in Mexico.
I met the play’s director and driving force, Robin Herford, who lives in Cheltenham, for a chat over a couple of frothy cappuccinos. I started by asking him what brought him here. “I moved here about ten years ago. I had been based in Scarborough but it’s a bit out of the way up there when I need to travel around the country or get to airports. I needed somewhere more central. And I had family links here too.”
So how did the play come about? I asked. “It all began in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Alan Ayckbourn, who was the director there, was away at the National Theatre for two years and I’d been left in charge. Strange though it may sound, Woman in Black came about because we needed to spend our grant. We had £1000 left and we were told that if we didn’t use it we’d have that much less the following year.”
So Robin set about finding ways to put the money to good use. “It was coming up to Christmas and my programme for the year had been worked out, but I decided to squeeze in one more play. I wanted to do a ghost story and I asked playwright Stephen Mallatratt to come up with something. He suggested an adaptation of the Susan Hill story and
that’s what we went with. Our meagre thousand pounds was only enough for two actors and a very basic set, so it was that as much as anything, that dictated the shape and form of what we produced.
“And it wasn’t just the lack of resources,” Robin explained. “As I said, our season was already in place so using the main auditorium was not possible. The world premier of The Woman in Black took place rather inauspiciously in the theatre bar!”
The play takes place in a variety of locations ranging from a stuffy City solicitor’s office to a railway carriage, from a London park to a deserted, crumbling house surrounded by misty marshes off the northwest coast. There is a dog, a pony and trap and a multitude of weird and wonderful characters encountered along the way. How did Robin achieve all this with just two actors and not much more?
“The play asks the audience to work; it needs the audience to work. We upset their expectations. People arrive and they’re often quite edgy. They don’t know what they’re going to see. They’ve heard it’s very spooky, very frightening and that’s good, I don’t want people to feel comfortable. They come into the theatre and the stage set is very dusty and tatty and sits there grey and broody, waiting for the play to start. It really gets them in the mood. They are very wary. That’s exactly what I want.”
I suggest it’s rather like the people who prefer plays on radio because they consider the scenery and costumes to be so much better. “Absolutely,” laughs Robin, “that’s absolutely right. And I think that’s what makes it all the more frightening; the fact that much of it takes place in viewer’s own imagination. They each have their own vision, their own interpretation of what’s happening. They bring their own fears and nightmares with them.”
A lot of us will have seen the play already. I asked Robin why we would want to see it again, does it change much? “Enormously. I mean really enormously. You’d be quite surprised. For example, there is a twelve minute difference in running time between this touring show and the West End show.
“I change the cast in London every 9 months and I visit every 6 weeks just to see that all is well. With a new cast you sometimes think ‘oh gosh, can I do this again?’ and then you meet two new actors who are at the foothills of this particular Matterhorn and you think, yes, I’m going to enjoy watching climb this particular mountain.”
If you haven’t seen The Woman in Black, then you must; if you’ve already seen it then you won’t need prompting to see it again. It is genuinely scary and will be one of the few times when you’ll find yourself in an audience that is gasping and screaming. And all of this is achieved with no blood and gore, just the systematic build up of suspense which often reaches breaking point. But these are no cheap thrills. The Woman in Black is good theatre. It’s original, clever, well written and deftly directed.
If the play whets your appetite, there’s a backstage Ghost Tour after the opening performance on Monday May 10th with tickets just £5. Call the box office on 01242 572573.
What you’ve seen or what you’ve missed
Knowing nothing about Enjoy I was under the impression, and given to believe, that it was a new Alan Bennett play. It turned out to be a lost and forgotten masterpiece.
It had first opened in the West End in 1980 with Joan Plowright, Colin Blakely and Liz Smith but was very poorly received and consequently almost disappeared for nearly three decades. The mauling had been such that Bennett did not write for the theatre again for some years.
So the revival, which played the Everyman at the end of March, was a bit of an eye-opener. Without niggling, it was hard to fault any part of this production. Alison Steadman was, as always, superb although at times I thought she had turned into Thora Hird. There were a lot of people on stage saying nothing for a lot of the time and David Troughton excelled as the belligerent husband who had to act dead for good twenty minutes of the second half. During this time he had his trousers and underpants removed – and apparently it wasn’t just his face that he was having to keep straight.
I can perhaps understand why the play was not accepted in 1980. It is not your typical Alan Bennett, in fact I thought the second half, which was pure, broad farce, was more like Joe Orton. In addition to the aforementioned trouser removal there was also a very randy chauffeur – echoes of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Bennett is usually more thoughtful, more introspective and more static. This is not a criticism, quite the opposite, I’d love to see more broad comedy from Mr. B. He has the ability to define and distil those things which are quintessentially English and in doing so, focus on the absurdities of everyday life. And, as we all know, the absurd and farce are very comfy bed-fellows.
Unlike most of the TV spin-off shows doing the rounds at the moment, Morecambe had some point to it. Unlike Dinnerladies and Dad’s Army, which just tried to recreate the television shows, writer Tim Whitnall and actor Bob Golding brought us something completely original giving us an insight into Eric’s life as well as an inventive and very good play. The concept, presentation and Golding’s performance were astonishing. It deservedly scooped this year’s Olivier award for Best Entertainment show.
It was a rare treat to see good opera at the Everyman. This was the first time I had seen The English Touring Opera and they were very impressive. Don Pasquale was beautifully presented and well sung by a young cast. Keel Watson in the title role was excellent. I don’t normally like opera to be translated into English nor am I too keen on comic operas but this show went a long way to changing my mind. Benjamin Brittain’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was breathtaking. The music, singing and acting were outstanding and the set, costumes and lighting were stunning. The logistics of moving a company of over 100 people around plus sets and costumes for three shows, some of which you only do once, must be a nightmare. I take my hat off to them on all counts.