THE WOMAN IN BLACK – APRIL 18-22
After 27 years in the West End and four national tours, the spine-tingling Woman in Black returns to thrill audiences once again at Norwich Theatre Royal this April.
David Acton and Matthew Spencer are the latest pairing to take on the country’s favourite horror play, and they tell Alex Dalgleish that they’re looking forward to bringing it to the Fine City.
In The Woman in Black, a lawyer obsessed with a ghostly curse engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story. It all begins innocently enough, but as they reach further into his darkest memories, they find themselves caught up in a world of eerie marshes and moaning winds.
David Acton, taking on the role of Arthur Kipps, is making a return to the show after playing the same role in the West End in 2011, and for a more recent short pre-tour run with Matthew Spencer in 2016. He’s glad to be back, he says, and he’s not surprised that audiences have been coming back too, for the last 27 years: “The way this story arises from just two people is really extraordinary. It’s a touching story, a moving story – and obviously there’s the chill factor!”
The play may be set in the Yorkshire marshes, but it has strong Norfolk roots. It is produced by the Theatre Royal’s former chief executive Peter Wilson through his company PW Productions, and this year’s visit will mark the show’s fourth time in Norwich.
Given the number of ghost stories that surround this region, perhaps that local connection is no surprise. They range from the spirits of former pilots said to be haunting RAF West Raynham, to the ghost of William Stewart, carrying his wife’s head around Norwich’s Bishopgate area. David has a personal favourite: “I’m hoping to take a trip to Lollards Pit Pub and see the ghosts of prisoners crossing the bridge.
“I like Norwich very much actually – and I love the theatre, it’s fantastic to play. I was there last a couple of years ago with Propeller, and I’m very much looking forward to coming back.”
The actors are also relishing the chance to perform the play in new venues around the country. “I think each new venue will bring something different and exciting to the piece,” says Matthew Spencer, who stars alongside David as The Actor. “Not only will the audience be different, but also the size of the place, even the feelings for us backstage, in terms of whether we’re crammed in the wings or whether there’s acres of space, I think that will really affect the play itself in a great and exciting way.”
The show’s West End home, the Fortune Theatre, seats an audience of just over 400; with the Theatre Royal seating over three times that number, the pair are expecting a few more screams than they were used to during their London run. “Maybe I’m a sadist, but I do love getting a good scream!” David says. “The screams are fantastic – especially when you get schools in, because they love screaming! So they scream again, and they look at each other and scream again. And then they giggle and scream again!”
Matthew agrees: “You stop the play for ten minutes, then. I don’t think you could ever get annoyed though, it’s all part of it. And we live for those moments. You kind of ride the wave of it, so it’s a lot of fun.”
So, do they believe in ghosts? Matthew says: “For me, it’s one of those things where I think, ‘oh, this is ridiculous’ – but I really like to think that they are real! Although I don’t really like being in the right-hand wing of the stage at the Fortune, because you hear stories. There is apparently a theatre ghost, and there is a cold feeling when you walk through there.
“Rehearsing a play is often the most troublesome part, when it comes to ghosts. It’s the most enjoyable part, but if you’re working with darker themes and you’re doing it all day every day, and then you’re taking it home and looking over the lines – that’s when it can take you over.”
David adds: “It gave us nightmares during rehearsal, actually, being involved with all the ghostly themes of the play, horrible nightmares. And then you think, oh my god, we open in five days’ time and I still don’t understand what I’m talking about – the director’s coming at you, ghosts are swirling…”
Following 28 years in the West End, of course, the show has a long and varied history. The two roles have previously been taken by actors including Martin Freeman (who would go on to find fame in Hollywood, following his breakout role in The Office) and Shakespeare in Love star Joseph Fiennes.
With all these names, Matthew and David could be forgiven for feeling a bit of pressure. In fact, says Matthew, it’s sort of reassuring: “You feel like, in some way, you’ve got all those people supporting you. Robin Herford – who directed it originally – still directs it now, so you feel the support of those 27 years, instead of the dread of them.
“What did scare me, though, was the first time we did the play on stage with all the lights and the sounds, I genuinely was scared. But I think Robin and David quite enjoyed scaring me!”
The pair are looking forward to taking the play to new audiences outside London, who might only know the book, or the 2012 movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. “The book is great”, says David, “and so is the film. But there’s something magical about seeing it in a theatre. It’s happening right in front of you, and that’s quite special”. Matthew agrees: “It draws attention to its own theatricality. It tells the story of two men putting on a play, and I think that’s what makes it scary. Even though it knows it’s a play, you’re still scared.”
So it sounds like Norwich audiences have a lot of frights to look forward to. And David has a little bit of advice for ticket buyers: “The first time I saw it, I was surrounded by young couples, who’d maybe seen it at school and brought along a new boyfriend or girlfriend. It turns out, it’s perfect for going to see with a date – it just throws you together, you’ll be jumping into each other’s arms!”
The Woman in Black, Tuesday 18 – Saturday 22 April at 7.30pm, and matinees Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets £7-£24.50. Discounts for Friends, Schools, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups.
To book, call the box office on 01603 630000 or log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk