Gothic chiller The Woman in Black comes to haunt Portsmouth

A scene from The Woman In Black. Picture by Tristram Kenton
A scene from The Woman In Black. Picture by Tristram Kenton
Richard Digance

A close encounter puts Richard’s career back on the musical path

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Since its publication in 1983, Susan Hill’s novel The Woman In Black has earned a place as one of literature’s most chilling ghost stories.

The theatrical adaptation is now the West End’s second longest-running show – behind The Mousetrap – clocking up nearly 28 years.

And in its latest UK tour it comes to Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal.

The show only features two actors – this time out it’s Matthew Spencer as The Actor and David Action as Mr Kipps.

As Matthew explains to The Guide: ‘David plays an older Mr Kipps, after he’s had something quite tragic happen to him in his earlier life and he’s decided he needs to write it down to exorcise his demons, and he employs me – an actor – to help tell his story. And being the young enthusiastic actor that he is, he decides he should play the main part.

‘So, he ends up playing the younger Mr Kipps, and then David plays all of the other characters that he meets along the way, I think he ends up playing seven characters. I play The Actor and the young Mr Kipps and switch in and out of those. It sounds much more confusing than it is when you actually watch it – it’s quite helpfully explained.’

It allows you to revisit all of those skills you learned at drama school and then hardly ever get to use. It’s good old-fashioned storytelling – there’s nothing to hide behind

Matthew Spencer, ‘The Actor’ in The Woman in Black

But the play-within-a-play conceit is not part of Hill’s original story. It became part of the theatrical adaptation due to the less glamorous reason of financial expediency.

Writer Stephen Mallatratt suggested adapting the story to director Robin Herford as something to spend leftover budget on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Robin was sceptical due to the number of parts in the book, but as Matthew says: ‘Simply just because of budgetary restraints Stephen came up with the idea of turning it into a two-hander. It was done by necessity to begin with, but that’s now part of the magic with just these two people taking on all the parts.

‘It’s just two people in front of the audience and people’s imaginations, really.’

It debuted in 1987 before opening in the West End in 1989.

And Matthew saw the play as an A-level theatre studies student. ‘I remembered seeing and remembered really enjoying it and it was impressive that it was only the two of them. I also remembered thinking that it would be a part I’d love to play if I became an actor, but I couldn’t really remember the details of it – it’s just a joy to tell and do.

‘It allows you to revisit all of those skills you learned at drama school and then hardly ever get to use. It’s good old-fashioned storytelling – there’s nothing to hide behind.’

Robin has directed every single production of the show and as Matthew says: ‘That’s great when you’re going into rehearsals as there’s a kind of freedom there. Even though you’re slotting into a piece which is already up and running and has been played by a lot of people, he allows the two he’s chosen to have freedom within that.’

And the show also rests on the chemistry between its stars. ‘Robin says 80 per cent of the job is getting the casting right and finding two actors who not only get on but have a similar ethos about how to do the play. Luckily David and I get on tremendously.

‘Robin gave me David’s mobile number and told me to maybe give him a call or drop him a text, so I sent him quite an abusive text as we’ve got a few mutual friends.

‘I said how little I was looking forward to working with him from the bad reputation that he’s garnered from his friends.

‘He sent me back an equally abusive one, so that’s when I knew it was going to be fine.’

The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth

March 27-April 1

newtheatreroyal.com