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

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 onregular 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: atgtickets.com/york

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 atgtickets.com/venues/grand-opera-house-york.

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

Alan Ayckbourn finds his voice for audio online version of ghost play Haunting Julia

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.

What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.

Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.

Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.

“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia, described by Alan Ayckbourn as “a second Woman In Black”

“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”

After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.

“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”

Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan. 

“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.

“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”

Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.

“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.

“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.

“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.

“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”

Alan Ayckbourn with his cast for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia. Picture: Copyright of Scarborough News

Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.

“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.

“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”

Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.

“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”

As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].

“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 1999 revival of Haunting Julia

The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”

Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.

“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.

“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.

Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.

“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”

Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, in their garden in the spring when they recorded his debut audio play, Anno Domino. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.

“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.

“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”

Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia