QUESTION: Which play marked the reopening of the Grand Opera House, York, after 547 days of Covid-enforced darkness on September 13 2021?
Answer: Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman In Black, first staged in a pub setting by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, as a Christmas ghost story in 1987.
Now, 869 days later, PW Productions’ tour returns to haunt the York theatre once more, “direct from the West End”, with a cast of Malcolm James as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Mark Hawkins as The Actor.
Malcolm and Mark have previous form for presenting 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.
“We did the show together very briefly in Dubai, for 11 performances, in 2017,” recalls Malcolm. “It might have seemed unusual doing a really ghostly story at Christmas in a modern Dubai building, but it proved very popular, though stepping outside the accommodation and theatre into 40-degree heat was a bit of a learning curve for me!”
Renewing the partnership on the 2023-2024 tour, James and Hawkins will be playing York amid the more apt winter chill, as Arthur Kipps engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. “Mark is a wonderful young actor, very engaged and really committed to the play, bringing such intensity to it, never letting me drop from my A-game,” says Malcolm.
He first played Arthur Kipps on the 2014-2015 tour and in a subsequent West End run at the Fortune Theatre, London, in 2016, both with Matt Connor in the role of The Actor. “The show certainly changed from where we started, and that’s one of the joys of doing long runs. I keep learning, as I’ve been doing throughout my career,” says Malcolm.
“After drama school, a three-week run at Leeds Playhouse feels huge, when you’ve not done that before, but then, when you start doing tours, you find out how limiting a short run is. And because The Woman In Black is a two-hander, there’s so much more to explore, as you keep discovering new things, where suddenly a new emphasis is thrown up when one actor says a line differently.”
As ever, Robin Herford is directing the latest tour. “Working again with the same director is a joy because it’s my favourite play, my favourite part, so rewarding, as you get the initial feedback from the chills, the thrills, the mystery, but ultimately it’s a very human story of grief,” says Malcolm.
“Arthur Kipps is full of suffering, tormented by the burden of this demon that he needs to purge by telling his story. This time Robin [Herford] wanted to make it grittier, and it’s definitely become darker and richer, so as much as the audience may get caught up in the ‘jump scares’, they’re relating to the human drama too.”
Malcolm thrives on performing a play that revels in its own theatrical setting, steeped in atmosphere, illusion and horror. “It’s set up from the beginning, just two people on stage who are going to rehearse a play from Kipps’s story with basic props,” he says.
“The audience willingly slips into thinking they are watching the real thing unfold, not just watching two actors, and it absolutely shows the power of what theatre can do that no other medium does, where everyone becomes caught up in a brilliant piece of storytelling.
“Stephen Mallatratt is absolutely faithful to the novel and to the language of the period, and he’s brilliant at building up the story, where each time he goes back into the drama, he does it for longer, with comedy and anticipation at first, until the story becomes relentless to the point where most of the second half is set in the [haunted] house.”
The 2014-205 tour brought Malcolm to York Theatre Royal in November 2014. “I haven’t played the Grand Opera House before, and that’s another joy of touring because playing different theatres helps to keep it fresh,” he says.
“In London, we played it in a 1920s’ theatre, The Fortune, which was perfect as it was small and close up, but on tour it’s a challenge every week, such as dealing with the differing acoustics.
“If you’re playing a theatre that’s seen better days, in a play with an old theatre setting, that’s fantastic, and I love working in proscenium-arch theatres for that reason, but it still works in a modern theatre, a big wooden barn, where you’re asking for an extra level of suspension of disbelief.”
First Matt Connor, now Mark Hawkins, Malcolm has enjoyed the chemistry of both partnerships, so vital to the play’s impact. “I’ve been very lucky with both Matt and Mark,” he says. “It’s great if there’s a personal rapport as well as a professional one, and I’ve had that each time, making the relationship work on stage, having a pint together afterwards.”
The Woman In Black spooks Grand Opera House, York, January 30 to February 3, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york
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