But now, 30 years after the show — an unexpected hit — moved to London’s West End, it’s still playing there, the second-longest-running show in history, trailing only Agatha Christie’s indefatigable “The Mousetrap.” Herford still directs each new cast of “The Woman in Black,” including the touring version that’s coming to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre this week.
“What surprised us was that this play actually scared people,” Herford confesses over the phone from his home in England’s Cotswolds. “We had thought people would like it much as they enjoy Halloween, without really believing it. I didn’t expect people to take a ghost story seriously, because it’s notoriously difficult to scare people in the theater. We weren’t looking to do that; it just sort of happened.”
In Hill’s novel, an older man named Kipps reluctantly tells his family about his youthful encounter with a murderous ghost at an isolated castle. Stephen Mallatratt, one of Herford’s actors at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, framed his adaptation by having Kipps rent a theater and hire a professional actor to help him present the same story to the same family.
Comedy ensues as the young actor coaxes his stiff employer to cut his text, add sound effects and loosen up his delivery. “Draw on your emotions and our imaginations,” the young man implores. He demonstrates how a large wicker basket can become a desk, a railway car, an altar and a horse-drawn carriage. It’s as if the show is explaining a magic trick to the audience and then pulling it off nonetheless.
“Laughter and being scared are closer than people imagine,” says Herford. “I remember the first show in London, and I was watching from up in the rafters. There was a lot of laughter, and I was worried. Someone said, ‘No, that’s nervous laughter. Just watch, they’re ready to scream.’ If we can get those laughs early on, if the audience is responding some way, we’re okay. I’ve worked a lot with Alan Ayckbourn, and he knows a thing or two about getting laughs.”
It was Ayckbourn who ran the Stephen Joseph Theatre, on England’s northeast coast, from 1972 through 2009, and it was Ayckbourn who hired Herford, fresh out of drama school, promoting him to be the theater’s artistic director while Ayckbourn ran London’s National Theatre in 1986 and 1987. At the end of his term, Herford had a mere 5,000 pounds left over, but he knew you should never let any grant money go unspent.
“The fact that we had nothing made it the show it was,” Herford insists. “If we’d had 30,000 pounds instead of 5,000, we could have hired 12 people with lots of sets and business, and it would have been too costly to move to the West End. But because we had to tell the story on a limited budget, Stephen found a way to present it in a very theatrical way that relied on the audience to fill out the details. People started coming up to us and saying, ‘I saw this on Thursday, and I’ve slept with the light on ever since.’ They were touched.”
With the young actor (Daniel Easton in Washington) playing Kipps in the retelling, and Kipps himself (Robert Goodale) warming to the acting process as he plays assorted other characters, the play conjures a chilly Christmas season on the Northumberland coast, where a narrow causeway leads to a spooky castle. We don’t actually see the castle and carriage, but we hear the creaking doors and clip-clopping hoofs coming from the shadows.
And, wait, is that a woman in a black dress in the background?
“It’s scary, because it’s live,” Herford says. “If you’re breathing the same air as the actors, if you’re experiencing time in the same moment, where you can’t hit the pause button, where the performers and audience are discovering the same thing at the same time, it can be really frightening. Also, the play doesn’t just happen on the stage. It’s the whole auditorium, the aisles and standing room, so there’s no sense of being safe in your comfortable seat in the stalls. Anything could come at you from anywhere, at any time.”
Director Herford has four shows running: the London version of “The Woman in Black”; the touring version; Ayckbourn’s “Ten Times Table” in Guilford; and the world premiere of “Stray Dogs,” a play about Stalin and a Russian poet on the West End.
“I recast ‘The Woman in Black’ every nine months because actors get worn out, and it stops being fresh,” he adds. “You don’t have to change the script or the set. Just give it some different actors with different instincts, and it becomes a new production. And because it’s a two-hander, you can give the new actors ownership of the play. I never ask them to re-create what the last cast did.”
The Woman in Black
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatrecompany.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 22.