We walk around behind the scenes just before The Woman In Black starts. For the scariest show in the West End, the Fortune Theatre feels unassuming and mundane, in use as a performance space for 93 years and a pub for a further 150 before that. But with five shows a week, an estimated 10.5 million people will have passed across this spot since its theatrical genesis. That’s a lot of residual, latent memories with huge paranormal potential – if you believe in all of that stuff. For the record, I absolutely do not.
But regardless of whether you are convinced or not of worlds and dimensions outside of our own, there is something intrinsically spooky about an old theatre with its associated creaks and groans. We walk under the stage and hear about the graveyard that still exists on the other side of the back wall, a part of the Church of Scotland. Knowing the number of bodies buried mere feet from where we are standing sends a tingle down my spine.
It’s exactly this kind of paranoid unrest that The Woman In Black capitalises on – a show more so about the fear of what may happen rather than the fright of what we actually witness ourselves. Overactive imaginations are our biggest enemies in this show. Actors Terence Wilton and James Byng note that the atmosphere only grows when more imaginative school kids are in the audience:
Terence: When you get big school groups in, mass hysteria breaks out – they set each other off. It becomes a kind of white noise all the way through the show. It’s the first time in my experience that we’re delighted to have schoolchildren in the audience!
James: The first time I saw this I was about 14 or 15…
Terence: Not long ago then!
James: I missed vast chunks of it because my schoolmates were screaming, you couldn’t hear, so now I’ve come back it feels a totally different play! I was somewhat prepared for the volume of screams, but it’s quite extraordinary to be experiencing it up on stage.
Wilton and Byng are The Woman In Black’s new cast, having played Arthur Kipps and The Actor respectively for just over a month now. We get to meet and chat with them after being frightened half to death in the performance itself.
Knowing exactly what’s going to happen, has it demystified the show?
Terence: The audience are an extraordinary ingredient in this show and it’s absolutely different every night. You don’t realise from rehearsals, you’re just trying to play the truth of a particular situation. When we came to see a performance during that period, it’s about watching something technical rather than releasing the emotional.
James: My experience of the show has evolved from being an audience member through to being an actor. From my perspective now, it’s very technical – a lot of fiddly bits to make things work and look seamless. You have to try and trick yourself daily, find that point of genuine surprise in every moment.
Do you find the story plays on your mind on days off?
Terence: I went to Scarborough last weekend where I started my career with a man called Stephen Joseph – it was 50 years since he died, so there was a great gathering to celebrate. But on the Monday morning I woke up in the hotel, looked out and saw a great sea fret so thick that you couldn’t see out the windows.
The Woman In Black is adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s original 1983 novel. It came to the West End in 1987, eventually took up residence in the Fortune Theatre and has played here ever since – that’s 28 years and counting, the second longest play in the West End (after The Mousetrap):
Terence: The book is beautifully written by Susan Hill. It’s lovely to speak it – there’s a literary journey to go on. All playwriting is about putting structure in, he’s done an extraordinary job of telling the story and keeping the essence of the novel.
James: I love the brazenness of Stephen Mallatratt, who did the adaptation. The way the play starts, taking almost exactly what Susan Hill has written on the first page and then having my character, a puffed up young actor, come along and think it a bit boring. But then we’ve also got some lovely lyrical chunks that best serve the story.
It’s safe to say that The Woman In Black is the scariest live performance I have ever witnessed. Part of this is due to its reputation, the knowledge that this show has terrified audiences for a month longer than I’ve been alive. But it’s also due to some exceptionally clever, seemingly simple but logistically complex, staging and lighting. Everything is set up to project the potential for horror, since anticipation is more potent than the act itself. But how do the actors shirk off all this and perform night after night?
Have either of you experienced stage fright on stage? What would your tips be to combat this?
James: The thing that scares me is getting too comfortable with something, the words being so ready to fly out of your mouth that when they don’t you’re caught off-guard. It helps to then rewind the tape in your mind and take a deep breath.
Terence: These kinds of things happen all the time, especially at my age. I have my own rendition in this show too, I make up words that are very much like Susan Hill’s. You become adept at that over time.
Forgetting words must be expected when you have so many lines and so many characters. How do you learn lines in the first place?
Terence: James has two characters and what’s that compared to the number I have to play! It’s what rehearsal is all about. In this play it’s not about what the character wants but what they’re hiding. Every single character at some point is closing up. When you find that with the particular language of that character, you don’t get lost. You can always find your way out… and I do frequently!
Why do you think people are still coming back to see the show 28 years later?
James: It’s a beautifully crafted story, a celebration of theatre and storytelling. It’s great that it’s in the Fortune Theatre too, the right size to have intimate audiences.
Terence: It’s a very simple piece of theatre – two actors, a plank and a passion.
Director: Robin Herford
Writer: Susan Hill
Adapted By: Stephen Mallatratt
Design: Michael Holt; Kevin Sleep (lighting); Rod Mead (sound)
Cast: Terence Wilton; James Byng
Images courtesy of Mark Douet
The Woman In Black is currently booking until 3 March 2018 at the Fortune Theatre. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.