REVIEW: The Woman In Black, PW Productions, haunting Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday *****

As intuitive as a double act: Mark Hawkins, as The Actor, front, and Malcolm James, as Arthur Kipps, in The Woman In Black. Picture: Mark Douet

THE chill night air. Water, water, everywhere. York, the city with even more ghosts than hotel rooms, was putting on its own show for the umpteenth yet ever-welcome return of The Woman In Black, the ghost story by Susan Hill from up the road in Scarborough.

The Grand Opera House has its resident ghost, said to greet new members of staff by name on first acquaintance in the auditorium, but once more there was a rival in town: one Jennet Humphrey, the “Woman” in the title of Stephen Mallatratt’s meta-theatrical adaptation, first staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in December 1987 in winter ghost-story season tradition.

That said, The Woman In Black could be staged anywhere, any season, as the latest touring partnership of Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins can testify.  They first teamed up as tormented lawyer Arthur Kipps and the whippersnapper-keen Actor for 11 performances in the 40-degree heat of Dubai, modern Madinat Theatre auditorium et al, in 2017.

James has his long service medal already, having appeared in the play’s 2014-2015 tour, visiting York Theatre Royal on that itinerary, and undertaking a subsequent London stretch at The Fortune in 2016.

Hawkins has played The Fortune too, and bringing that combined experience to Mallatratt’s adroit storytelling they make for a terrific partnership, as intuitive as a double act and admirably unfazed when the smog engulfing the stage sets off the smoke alarm.

Sitting next to the 13 to 16-year-olds from Stokesley, North Yorkshire, attending the opening night as part of their theatre studies, was a chance for a veteran reviewer to encounter The Woman In Black as if for the first time. Their changing reactions, as the early humour made way for the gravest, ghostly, ghastly deeds, added to the joys of this masterpiece of theatre’s unrivalled powers of imagination and invention.

As ever, Robin Herford is still directing the fright night’s scares, with Antony Eden, The Actor in the previous tour to York en route to more than 1,000 performances, as his associate director. As ever too, as billed in the programme, “the action takes place in this theatre in the early 1950s”.

Harder to imagine in Dubai, maybe, but the Grand Opera House is the perfect grand setting for the play within the play in a disused theatre within a theatre, where Michael Holt’s design, with its clever use of gauze, takes delight in gradually revealing a shadowy stairwell, dark passages, a mysteriously locked door and, spoiler alert, a children’s bedroom with toys untouched from 50 years ago.

Rod Mead’s sound design, administered on tour by Sebastian Fost, has a way of utilising all the theatre to surprise and jolt, while Kevin Sleep’s light design, now “re-lit” on tour by Alexander Hannah, is, pardon the pun, a highlight of the show, adding to the tension, constantly showing the stage in a different light that has you wondering where the Woman In Black might next appear. Not so much Sleep as sleepless, such is the disturbing presence.

As for the storytelling, James and Hawkins, as much as Mallatratt and Herford,  excel in the more-is less-approach as James’s haunted, stultified Kipps seeks to exorcise the fear that has burdened his soul for so long, to end the curse on his family.

“For my health, for reason”, his story must be told, he says, and with the help of Hawkins’s Actor, on the wings of imagination, his rambling book of notes will become a play so powerful, it no longer feels like a play, but an all-consuming reality destined to play out forever.

The Actor becomes Kipps, the young solicitor sent to attend to the murky, isolated, wretched English marshland estate of the newly dead Alice Drablow, while James’s Kipps, once he sheds his stage novice reserve, takes on all manner of roles, from narrator, hotel host and taciturn pony and trap driver, to an even more haunted old solicitor and wary landowner.

All the while, Kipps is ever more traumatised by his fears rising anew, and likewise Mallatratt applies the sleight of hand of a magician as the drama within takes over from the act of making it, while simultaneously glorying in theatre, acting skills and the British love of a ghost story.

No need for high-tech special effects, The Woman In Black is old-fashioned, storytelling theatre-making, in which the terrifying theatrical re-enactment is applied with only two chairs, a stool, a trunk of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed theatre curtain.

Smoke, shrieks, horse’s hooves and the Woman In Black’s spectral face play their part too, James and Hawkins handling the reins as deftly as an Olympic equestrian yet in thrall to a story beyond their control. Theatre at its best. Box office:

REVIEW: Wodehouse In Wonderland, York Theatre Royal, 2.30pm & 7.30pm today ****

Shaken and stirred: Robert Daws’s P G Wodehouse mixes a cocktail in Wodehouse In Wonderland , a play with a splash of revelations

Cahoots Theatre Company presents Robert Daws in Wodehouse In Wonderland, York Theatre Royal

WE know Jeeves And Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Blandings Castle, but how well do we know their creator, the comic novelist Pelham Grenville Wodehouse? Not as well, on the evidence of William Humble’s fascinating, funny yet forthright play.

Plum, as he was known in a conflation of his first name’s two syllables, is found in 1950s’ exile, at his typewriter as ever, in his New York State home on Long Island, the flowers in full bloom beyond his study window.

He has never returned to England since the end of the war and, to his sadness, will never do so after his besmirching as a “traitor” for his Berlin broadcasts when interred in 1941. He, along with fellow vilified exile Charlie Chaplin, would be knighted in the 1975 New Year’s Honours List at the age of 93, dying a month later.

As the Guardian reported, both humorists were “unexpectedly and very bemusedly involved in unpleasant political controversy at the height of their fame”.

At peace with his pipe: Robert Daws’s P G Wodehouse finding the musicality of language in the keys of his typewriter as he pens Jeeves and Wooster’s latest comic tale

Humble’s play goes into forensic detail in Act Two of what Wodehouse called his “great shaming”, but this is a beautifully balanced play with many, many ups, in the manner of those exquisitely written novels so full of English character, counterbalanced by stories of his “Empire orphan” childhood, his daughter Leonora (“Snorkles”), and those bitter attacks by the wartime media.

Played by the debonair Robert Daws, in his Plum job as a Wodehouse devotee from his RADA days, later cast as Tubby Glossop in four series of Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves & Wooster, Plum is working on his latest jaunty Jeeves instalment as Humble’s play opens.

Humble will track Wodehouse’s daily routine of writing, taking breakfast to his wife Ethel, walking the Pekingese dogs Wonder and Squeaky, lunch, more writing, savouring cocktails and enjoying American soap operas (better than their British counterparts, reckons Plum).

His day’s progress, the tip-tap rhythms of the typewriter, will be interrupted by his wife, his daughter, the dogs’ barking and now a would-be biographer, who appears to have had a humour bypass.

His meetings and phonecalls, however, trigger Plum into discussing those light-hearted radio broadcasts that met with the opprobrium of wartime Minister of Information Duff Cooper despite being devoid of both propaganda and politics. Only Evelyn Waugh, fellow observer of English ways, caught Plum’s tone as it was intended, seeking to be be funny as comedians are wont to do.

Spring in his step: Robert Daws’s P G Wodehouse espousing the virtue of humour

Interwoven into the routines of a man at happiest when left alone to write, are Wodehouse’s stories of first “meeting” the sanguine Jeeves and his younger days as a lyricist working with Guy Bolton, Ivor Novello, Jerome Kern et al, leading to Daws showing off his singing chops with jovial aplomb on several occasions.

Featuring too are Plum’s reflections on writing his books “like musical comedies without music”; the English characteristic of needing to knock down those who find success, and the consequences of seeing his overseas parents only twice from the age of two in 15 years, his time divided between a contented education at Dulwich School and in the care of his aunts, 15 of them no less, hence their profusion in his novels, where they are subject to his mischievous streak.

Under the immaculate direction of Robin (Woman In Black) Herford, Daws’s performance captures both light and dark, with an ear for accents, a song in his heart, a mastery of emotion in a devastating revelation in Act Two, and an omnipresent love of Wodehouse and his literary wonderland. Praise too for Lee Newby’s set and costume design, evoking both the Fifties’ American setting and its English occupant and the earlier times of which Wodehouse wrote.

For all his vilification in the war years and its knock-on effect, Humble’s Wodehouse bears no bitterness, believing that life will always be better for humour. As Daws steps forward at the finale, Plum ponders, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just be nice to each other, like Lord Emsworth feeding Empress, his beloved black Berkshire sow. He has a point.

Take a PG tip: on such a wet day, look on the bright side by heading indoors to be enlightened and enchanted alike by Wodehouse, Humble and Daws, a terrific triumvirate in Cahoots’ eloquent one-man drama.  

Why playing P. G. Wodehouse is Plum job for Robert Daws in biographical play Wodehouse In Wonderland

Cocktail shaker: Robert Daws in a scene from William Humble’s play Wodehouse In Wonderland. Picture: Pamela Raith

REMEMBER the character of Tubby Glossop – “like a bulldog that’s just had its dinner snitched” – in the Fry and Laurie television series of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster?

He was played by actor and crime writer Robert Daws, whose fascination with comic novelist, short-story writer, lyricist and playwright “Plum” Wodehouse has led him to star in the British premiere of William Humble’s play Wodehouse In Wonderland, presented by Cahoots Theatre Company on tour at York Theatre Royal from April 20 to 22.

“It all started with my own interest in Plum,” says Robert, 63. “When I was at RADA, I was given a copy of Right Ho, Jeeves by Tom Wilkinson, who was directing at the academy. I read it and loved it, little knowing that a few years later I’d be starring in a wonderful TV adaptation.

“I’ve since become a bit of an aficionado, and a few years ago I went to see Perfect Nonsense, a Jeeves and Wooster play in the West End starring Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen. Afterwards I was talking to some fellow Wodehouse enthusiasts, and it made me realise just how big an interest there in his work, but how little I knew about the man himself.”

Whereupon Robert read a few biographies and learned more of his extraordinary life, not least his early career as a Broadway lyricist. “I called my friend Bill Humble and said, ‘do you think there might be a play about this?’, and he replied that he’d just finished working on a screenplay about Wodehouse’s life, so I’d called at just the right time. That was around five years ago.”

Directed by Robin Herford, best known for his West End production and many tours of Woman In Black, Wodehouse In Wonderland is set in the writer’s New York State home in the 1950s. Plum, as he is known to family and friends, is working on Wooster’s latest adventure, only to be interrupted by a young would-be biographer, his adored wife, daughter Snorkles and his two Pekingese dogs.

Dancing feet: Robert Daws in a moment of joy in Wodehouse In Wonderland. Picture: Pamela Raith

Based on the life and writings of Wodehouse, Humble’s play finds Daws’s Wodehouse sharing stories of how Jeeves entered his life, how he became addicted to American soap operas and why he wrote books that were “like musical comedies without music”.

He sings songs composed by Broadway legends Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Ivor Novello with lyrics written by Wodehouse himself, and entertains the audience with characters such as gentlemen’s gentleman Wooster, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Gussie Fink-Norrie and Madeline Bassett.

Yet a darker story lies beneath the fizzing fun, when the biographer’s visit prompts Wodehouse to reflect on his past in Humble’s play in the second half. “By now in his 70s, Plum was living on Long Island in the 1950s because of the ‘great shaming’, as he called it, of his experiences as an internee during the war, when the Germans manipulated him into making what became known as the ‘Berlin broadcasts’, which was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes,” says Robert.

“One of the themes of the play is his naivety, but he was fully investigated by MI6, who completely exonerated him of any treachery, but that report was kept from him all his life.

“The columnist Cassandra really put the knife into him in the Daily Mail, but in the 1950s he was a regular visitor to the USA, and who would he have lunch with but P. G. Wodehouse!”

Wodehouse wrote a diary of this period called Wodehouse In Wonderland. “The title is appropriate because that’s very much how he spent his life. He needed to create and live in this fantasy world and was never happier than when he was writing. Sadly, the diary was never found, and he never returned to England after the war,” says Robert.

At peace with a pipe: Robert Daws’s P.G. Wodehouse in Wodehouse In Wonderland. Picture: Pamela Raith

“Things conspired to work against Plum living in England for many years, so there are deeply psychological reasons behind that decision, but as he grew older, he was also incredibly reclusive, which, like most things goes back to his childhood, where his father was a judge in Hong Kong and his mother was a distant figure.

“It was the Victorian way of a certain class to send children away, so at the age of two he was shipped over to England to be looked after by his aunts. Fifteen of them. He didn’t see his parents for years. He was an ‘Empire orphan’.”

His elder brother went to up to Oxford University, and Plum, excelling at the classics and sport, gained a place too. “But his father said, ‘we can’t afford to send you there. You have to work’. He became a bank clerk in the City of London, which he hated,” says Robert.

“He would often be told off because he would write at night, which at all times is a tough gig, and he would turn up at work in his shirt and trousers over his pyjamas. But what he had was this extraordinary work ethic throughout his life. When he died alone in hospital on Long Island, he had his latest manuscript with him on his deathbed.  He was still working to the very end.”

On the lighter side, what of Plum’s prowess as a lyricist? “As a young man, he went to America to make his living writing anything anyone wanted him to write, including theatre reviews, and then worked with American writer Guy Bolton, a lifelong friend, as a lyricist, using the American vernacular on shows that absolutely took New York by storm,” says Robert.

“Andrew Lloyd Webber said of him, if Plum had never written any Jeeves and Wooster stories, he would still be considered one of the fathers of the American musical.

Robert Daws’s P. G. Wodehouse at work in his Long Island home in New York State. Picture: Pamela Raith

“He had the extraordinarily good fortune to work with Jerome Kern and write with Cole Porter, both Gershwins and Oscar Peterson too. I always think it’s quite strange that this man we now associate with such quintessentially English characters was in those days better known for his work on Broadway.

“So I perform some of these songs during the show and I’m really enjoying the chance to sing again. I used to do a lot of musicals when I was starting out, and even won a musical award at RADA, though I soon realised my dancing skills weren’t up to it!”

Playing Wodehouse is very much Robert’s “take on him, rather than an impersonation”. “When you’re playing a character people know, like Churchill for example, people know what they looked and sounded like, so there’s a certain expectation, but with Wodehouse that isn’t the case,” he reasons of a challenge he describes as a labour of love, where he has “become inordinately fond of Plum”.

“There isn’t actually much footage of him, and people always said that in reality he was a very reticent and shy figure. Despite creating these extraordinary, larger-than-life characters, he didn’t really socialise and generally liked to disappear into his imagination. So to portray him as he was would not necessarily work. I’ve realised I need to let the words and music speak for themselves, in order to give a more rounded portrayal of the man himself.

“What runs throughout the story is how people were amazed by his benign nature, his sweetness of nature, which wasn’t fake, and how he had a childlike outlook on life.”

Wodehouse In Wonderland paints a fuller picture of the writer at work. “George Orwell, an unlikely friend but a friend nonetheless, said of him, ‘people are envious of you because you live in this beautiful bubble where you get up in the morning, have breakfast, write in the morning, take the dogs for a walk, back home in time for a drink with wife Ethel, and then work in the evening,” says Robert. “But that’s one of the reasons he was so prolific, wanting to be left alone to write.

Plum job: Wodehouse aficianado Robert Daws playing P. G. Wodehouse. Picture: Pamela Raith

“Occasionally you bump into people who say, ‘oh, he just wrote about toffs and we have enough of them already’, but to some extent his world was just as fantastical as Terry Pratchett’s world.

“In India, where I hope to take the show, he is so popular as a writer who’s considered to be subversive, because his characters are to be laughed at, not with. Just look at what he’s commenting on underneath the top layer of wit because, in a way, he was an outcast from that charmed circle.”

As he prepares for the “big treat” of playing York Theatre Royal for the first time, Robert’s thoughts return to playing Wodehouse’s Tubby Glossop in four TV series of Jeeves & Wooster from 1990 to 1993. “It’s one of those moments in your career where you think, ‘oh, I’m so glad that happened’. The most overwhelming feeling is that fate worked to advantage,” he says.

“I’d read the books since my 20s, and I was the fourth person to be cast. I was so happy! It was a wonderful four years, with Clive Exton [the series creator and writer] even sticking Tubby into stories that he wasn’t in originally.

“Over the years. I’ve worked with four actors who’ve played Bertie Wooster: Ian Carmichael, Richard Briers, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Mangan.”

Now he is playing the Wooster source, P. G. Wodehouse.

Robert Daws in Wodehouse In Wonderland, York Theatre Royal, April 20 to 22, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Robert Daws raises a glass to his role as P. G. Wodehouse in Wodehouse In Wonderland

Did you know?

ROBERT Daws is the author of the best-selling Rock detective novels set in Gibraltar and Spain. He co-presents the popular crime fiction podcast Partners In Crime.

“Writing uses a lot of the same creative muscles that you use as an actor,” he says. “Early in my career I spent five years at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where we did a lot of different plays and variety nights, including lots of improvisation. This has stood me in good stead as a writer, because there’s an awful lot of improvisation involved.

“Certainly, all the work I’ve done over the years creating characters has been really helpful as well. I suppose in a way my writing has become my own little wonderland.”

Did you know too?

DIRECTOR Robin Herford and actor Robert Daws have known each other for many years. Robin first directed Robert as Dr Watson in The Secret Of Sherlock Holmes at the Duchess Theatre, London, and latterly when he played the lead in a national tour of Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table. A shared passion for P. G. Wodehouse makes Wodehouse In Wonderland an irresistible project for them both.

REVIEW: The Woman In Black, PW Productions, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office:

Pony and trapped: Robert Goodale, left, and Antony Eden in a scene from The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 barren nights, the Grand Opera House, York, reopened on Monday as a ghost story blew away the cobwebs of pandemic-enforced closure at last.

Jennet Humphrey, the “Woman” in the title of The Woman In Black, has a habit of returning to this already crowded city of ghosts on regular occasions, such is the abiding popularity of Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation that began life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in novelist Susan Hill’s home town of Scarborough in December 1987.

From that premiere, Robin Herford is still directing the award-garlanded fright-night and Michael Holt’s brilliantly atmospheric set is still adding to the chill factor with its clever use of gauze, a shadowy stairwell, passages, a mysteriously locked door and the faded grandeur of a disused theatre. 

No matter how often you see the show, Rod Mead’s original sound design, now realised on tour by Sebastian Frost, unfailingly will tantalise, taunt, tease and terrify you. Every time!

Likewise, cast members Robert Goodale and Antony Eden are back in Black, albeit working in partnership for the first time on this revived tour of Mallatratt’s two-hander. Goodale was in the company for the last York visit, in November 2019, at the Theatre Royal, one of myriad old haunts for Eden too, who played there in February-March 2013 en route to notching up more than 1,000 performances.

Familiar faces were in the dress circle too. Not the Grand Opera House’s resident ghost, but the ghosts of Theatre Royal pantomimes past, now first-night guests in their new home, as Berwick Kaler, David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell gathered ahead of this winter’s Dick Turpin Rides Again.

Robert Goodale, with Antony Eden in the shadows, in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

First, however, it was time for The Woman In Black’s pony and trap to be ridden again. I say ‘pony and trap’, but it is in fact a wicker trunk. Goodale’s Arthur Kipps, the haunted old solicitor seeking to exorcise the fear that has filled his soul for more than 50 years, looks puzzled.

Use your imagination, advises Eden’s now not-so-young Actor, employed by Kipps to help him turn his rambling book of notes into…well, don’t call it a performance, he says. “I’m not Olivier.”

However, “for my health, for reason”, his story must be told. “I cannot bear the burden any longer,” he says desperate to put his stultifying obsession to bed, to find a peace of mind at last, to end the curse on his family.

At this point, as Kipps and the Actor meet in a dusty old theatre, the tone is lightly humorous, Kipps’ lack of acting talent and sense of drama amusingly apparent; the Actor, sceptical and cocky.

And yet, as if the stage were made of quicksand, we are drawn into what becomes a celebration of the possibilities of theatre and the craft of acting, as much as a superbly executed, drip-drip telling of a ghost story.

In Mallatratt’s play within a play, the drama within takes over from the act of making it. Gradually, by now taking Kipps gravely seriously, Eden’s Actor becomes the young Kipps; Goodale’s stage novice Kipps becomes everyone else, from a convivial hotel manager to a taciturn pony-and-trap driver and an old lawyer, hollowed out by past encounters with the spectral woman in a black cape with a wasted face.

Antony Eden: Adding to his 1,000-plus performances as the Actor in The Woman In Black this week at the reopened Grand Opera House, York. Picture: Tristram Kenton

All the while, in his narrator’s role, old Kipps grows ever more paralysed by resurgent fears as the story unfolds of his ill-fated errand as a young solicitor to the haunted Eel Marsh House: an isolated place forever at odds with its wretched self.

The Woman In Black is old-fashioned, storytelling theatre-making, where not only Kipps, but we too, must engage our imaginations, as Herford eschews high-tech special effects. For example, Spider, a dog, is conjured simply with a click of a finger, a push of a stick, a hand stroke in mid-air, with no need for the distracting presence of a real mutt or puppet.

The terrifying theatrical re-enactment is rendered with only two chairs, a trunk of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed theatre curtain.

Then add smoke to create a disorientating murk that spreads over the auditorium, transforming the stalls into the eerie marshlands, allied to the restless, intrusive sound effects that thrive on surprise and sudden bursts of noise, from horse’s hooves to piercing screams. All the while, in Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, shadows and darkness wrestle with light for dominance, guaranteeing a sleepless night.

After month after month of silence, the Grand Opera House was being reawakened from its slumber with gasps, shrieks and nervous audience laughter, and we loved it. Goodale and Eden, wonderfully in control of delivering a storyline that is spinning beyond control, maybe forever, clearly love it too.

The Woman In Black will not be vanishing any time soon; the empty rocking chair will keep on rocking to big audiences, newcomers and veteran devotees alike.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Why Antony Eden keeps coming back to The Woman In Black after 1,000 shows

“You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did The Woman In Black when I was 14,” says Antony Eden, who has returned to the role of The Actor. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 days, the Grand Opera House, York, will step out of the darkness and into The Woman In Black from September 13.

Robert Goodale will play lawyer Arthur Kipps opposite Antony Eden as The Actor in PW Productions’ latest tour of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story.

Neither is a stranger to performing the torrid tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years now.

“That is true,” says Antony. “You could say, I’m a bit of an old hand! I actually first did it when I was 14 after I saw it in the West End. I was already acting, and we wrote to PW Productions , director Robin Herford and Susan Hill to ask if we could put it on in the school theatre at Winchester.”

The answer was affirmative. “James Orr was my co-star…and in fact he came to see me in the show in Cambridge this summer with his son. I’d played The Actor when I was 14, and when we met up afterwards, I said, ‘I’m still playing the same part I was at 14, so I haven’t progressed much’!”

Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in The Woman In Black, haunting the Grand Opera House, York, from September 13 to 18. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony first performed in Robert Herford’s West End production in 2010, followed by a couple of tours, visiting York Theatre Royal in February 2013, a return to the West End in 2016 and a tour of Asia and Singapore. Now both he and The Woman In Black are back on the road again.

Such is his perennial association with PW Productions’ production that he has become associate director Of The Woman In Black. “I’ve worked with Robert Goodale before because, when he and Danny Easton were doing the last tour, part of my job was to go and see them every six weeks or so,” he says.

That tour spooked out York Theatre Royal in November 2019, but after the lockdown hiatus, Easton has gone west. “He decided not to come back into the tour. He does a running podcast now,” says Antony.

And so, while Danny keeps on running, Antony has resumed the role of The Actor from June 21 at Cambridge Arts Theatre, once more under the direction of the ubiquitous Herford, who directed the premiere of Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation when it began life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough.

Gripping moment: Antony Eden as The Actor with Julian Forsyth as Arthur Kipps at York Theatre Royal in February 2013

“We started working together for The Woman In Black and have done many things together since,” says Antony. “I think we have a shared philosophy of theatre, rooted in that Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn, Robin Herford mould. I love that small-scale way of making theatre.

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play. This piece is all about the audience, just as it is for Alan Ayckbourn, who sees the writing as only part of the process: the blueprint for the performance.”

Antony had the joy of performing in writer-director Ayckbourn’s company for the SJT premiere of A Brief History Of Women and revival of Taking Steps in summer 2018. “I was doing a tour of Relatively Speaking with Liza Goddard and Robert Powell that Alan came to see, and then did Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman with Liza and Russell Dixon, one of Alan’s regulars, at Cheltenham,” he recalls.

“When it then came to working with Alan, I’d already got a fair way along that path, as I was in that mindset from working with Robin and I’m naturally inclined to that style of theatre.

Antony Eden as Anthony Spates, Frances Marshall as Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, left, and Louise Shuttleworth as Mrs Reginald ffluke in Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History Of Women. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“Alan would apply the philosophy of painting to setting scenes, with the most details for the central character and then the others would fill in the background. My favourite piece of advice from him was: ‘Do as little as you can and then do even less’.”

“Less is more” applies equally to The Woman In Black, where a cast of only two must do everything and yet Mallatratt’s play and Herford’s direction are rich in detail, drawing in the audience hook by hook.

“You really feel they are connected: the performers and the audience,” says Antony. “This play is a drama, a mystery, a whodunit, even a comedy at times; there’s so much to it and it plays to theatre’s strengths.

“To me, what’s important and fun about theatre is that it’s all about empathy the actors have for each other and the audience, and likewise the audience have for the actors. That’s what makes it special. This circle of empathy is what theatre specialises in; there’s no other artform like it for empathy.”

“I’ve been a theatre fan since I was nine and I have to say that The Woman In Black is my favourite play,” says Antony Eden, right. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Antony had been playing Ron in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child in the West End when Covid shutdown theatres, with 12 weeks still to go on his contract at the Palace Theatre.

“It’s a totally different experience from doing A Woman In Black. You have a staff director re-creating John Tiffany’s original direction, whereas Robin Herford is still directing The Woman In Black, and that’s why actors really want to do it because it’s a different partnership each time, two actors, one script, that’s all.

“Harry Potter And The Cursed Child is 50 actors, a script, pyrotechnics, special effects. It’s filmic in its scope, and that’s different from the theatricality that The Woman In Black is all about.

“I’ve done this play more than 1,000 times now and I’ve never once got bored with it.”

The Woman In Black, Grand Opera House, York, September 13 to 18, 7.30pm; 2.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office:

Copyright of The Press, York

Darkness ends as The Woman In Black is back for Grand Opera House reopening

There’s a ghost in the House: Robert Goodale as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in The Woman In Black, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, next month. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 days, the Grand Opera House, York, will step out of the darkness and into The Woman In Black from September 13.

Robert Goodale will star as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in PW Productions’ tour of Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story.

The Woman In Black tells the tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years now.

“For my health, my reason,” he says, “The story must be told. I cannot bear the burden any longer.”

Robert Goodale: Returning to the role of Arthur Kipps in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

He duly engages a young actor to help him tell that story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul, but although it begins innocently enough, the deeper they delve into his darkest memories, the more the borders between make-believe and reality begin to blur and the flesh starts to creep.

The Woman In Black last spooked York audiences at the Theatre Royal in November 2019, after earlier runs there in February 2013 and November 2014. Hill’s ghost is no stranger to the Grand Opera House’s boards either.

Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation had begun life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough, and this latest touring production still retains its original director and designer, Robin Herford and Michael Holt. Well, if it ain’t broke, etc etc.

Likewise, Goodale is returning to the role he played at the Theatre Royal in 2019 for a tour that takes in Bath, Guilford, Oxford, Malvern, Shrewsbury, Manchester, Brighton, Glasgow, York, Blackpool, Stoke and Edinburgh.

Robert Goodale, left, and Antony Eden in a scene from The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Tickets for the Grand Opera House’s September 13 to 18 run are on sale at

One final thought: as much as The Woman In Black is a ghost story first and foremost, in Mallatratt’s hands, it is also a celebration of the craft of acting, the power of storytelling and the role of the imagination. All the more reason to welcome the reopening of the Grand Opera House, a theatre with a ghost of its own.

Did you know?

THE show that ran the week before darkness descended on the Grand Opera House under the Covid cloud was…Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s “supernatural sensation”, from March 10 to 14 2020.

The Caretaker in Ghost Stories at the Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020

REVIEW: Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table does not add up to riotous comedy, alas

Robert Daws’ committee chairman Ray, left, and Mark Curry’s pedantic Councillor Donald Evans in Ten Times Table. Pictures: Pamela Raith

REVIEW: Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table, The Classic Comedy Theatre Company, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or

IMPRESARIO and prolific producer Bill Kenwright has his name on multiple shows that frequent the Grand Opera House, from musicals to the Agatha Christie, Classic Thriller and Classic Screen To Stage companies.

Now add The Classic Comedy Theatre Company to that list, making their debut tour either side of Christmas with Ten Times Table, Alan Ayckbourn’s “calamitous comedy by committee” from 1977, the year when committees popped up everywhere to mark HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Those stellar names of British theatre, Kenwright and Ayckbourn, are complemented by a third: Robin Herford, perennial director of The Woman In Black and much else, not least past productions of Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and Relatively Speaking, Confusions, Bedroom Farce and Season’s Greetings elsewhere.

What’s more, Ayckbourn cast him as pedantic, punctilious, punctuation and procedure-obsessed Councillor Donald Evans in his SJT premiere of Ten Times Table in January 1977.

Everything sounded so promising for Herford’s touring production, not least a cast starring Robert Daws, Robert Duncan, Mark Curry and Deborah Grant. Certainly, more promising than the gloomy forecast that the River Ouse floodwaters could be seeping beneath the Grand Opera House doors by 6am, prompting senior management to stay on watchful guard through the night.

Thankfully, such concerns turned out to be a false dawn. Alas, Ten Times Table proved to be a damp squib too: that rare occasion when an Ayckbourn play just isn’t very funny any more.

Maybe we are spoilt by Sir Alan’s revivals of his classics at the Stephen Joseph Theatre each summer season; maybe they better suit the bear-pit setting of the SJT’s theatre in the round: more intimate, more inclusive, more apt for the combative nature of his vintage comedies. Maybe it is significant that Ten Times Table has never been among those revivals.

Misfiring: Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Ten Times Table fires blanks in Robin Herford’s touring production

Here in York, on a proscenium-arch stage, as with the body of a giraffe, Ten Times Table feels like the work of a committee. Or the work of a committee like the one we are watching as they assemble maybe ten times around the table (although your reviewer lost count).

Welcome to the “miscellaneous assemblage” of the Pendon Folk Festival committee, gathering beneath the erratic lights of the faded grand ballroom of the Swan Hotel, as Seventies as hotel grey gravy and over-boiled veg and as tired as the comedy in Michael Holt’s design.

The pathway to the Pendon Pageant will be a bumpy one, all the more so for the irascible, over-excitable disposition of chairman Ray (Robert Daws), who bores everyone, audience included unfortunately, as he recounts Pendon’s most dramatic news story of the past.

Now the 18th century army massacre of the radical Pendon Twelve agricultural agitators is to be re-enacted on pageant day. Ayckbourn duly sets up matching class warfare: middle-class conservatism on one side, represented by smug Ray; his constantly peeved, overbearing wife Helen (Deborah Grant); a mad, revolver-toting military dog-breeder, Tim (Harry Gostelow), and ineffectual dullard Councillor Evans (Mark Curry).

Always accompanying Evans is his octogenarian mum Audrey (Elizabeth Power), the minute-taking but pretty much deaf committee secretary who never delivers the minutes, dithering dottily except when a drink or the chance to play the piano comes her way.

On the other side, representing the agitators, is the truculent Marxist martyr, comprehensive schoolteacher Eric (Craig Gazey), and his acolytes, the ever-underwhelming Sophie (Gemma Oaten), even a disappointment to herself, and the almost impossibly quietly spoken costume maker Philippa (Rhiannon Handy).

No idea where he is, the sozzled Laurence (Robert Duncan) stumbles from marital crisis to the next marital crisis.

Ayckbourn depicts the minutiae of committee conduct with trademark mischief making but somehow this Ten Times Table does not add up amid the personality and ideological clashes. The power-driven Ray is as irritating as the banging on the floor above; plenty of others follow suit, and, especially in the long first half, the comedy feels too slow, too forced, the timing……

Charles Hutchinson