BOO! You’ll shiver, you’ll jump, you may even scream. For 25 years The Woman In Black has been terrifying audiences in theatres around the country.
Long before Daniel Radcliffe starred in the cinema version of Susan Hill’s best-selling novel, it fell to Stephen Mallatratt to bring the tale of Arthur Kipps, a lawyer obsessed with a curse he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a ‘Woman in Black’, to life.
First performed in 1987, Woman In Black opened in the West End two years later. Numerous tours have followed and as it returns to the Capital for a week-long run at The King’s next week, it has now been seen by more than seven million people worldwide.
One of them was a young aspiring actor called Matt Connor, who plays ‘The Actor’ in the current 32- week tour.
He recalls, “It was a show I’d always wanted to do because the theatricality of it is just amazing.
“I first saw it when it was on tour in 2001, then a couple of times in the West End.
“So I was a fan when I was asked to audition for the role. I think that’s the same for everyone working on the show. We are all fans of it so we keep it in really good shape.”
Like audience members everywhere, Connor’s lasting memory of his first encounter with The Woman In Black is of jumping out of his seat.
“I remember it vividly. Even when I saw it again, and knew what was going to happen, it still made me jump.
“What it does really well is to build the tension, so that even though you know what’s coming, you still jump out your skin.”
Even now, with more than 150 performances under his belt, the show retains the ability to catch Connor by surprise.
“Last week, I watched our understudies do their weekly run through and there were a few bits actually made me jump.
“It just has this strange power over an audience.”
For those yet to experience the thrills and chills of Hill’s dark tale, the story centres on Kipps (Malcolm James), who engages a young actor to help him tell his story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul.
It 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.
The borders between make believe and reality begin to blur and the flesh begins to creep.
“Most people tend to enjoy a really good ghost story. We enjoy being frightened in a safe environment. And this is a really good story,” says Connor.
“That, combined with some brilliant direction, lighting and sound effects and, of course, the audience’s imagination make it really scary.
“That’s what makes it work really. The show itself is technically quite simple, we rely on the audience’s imagination to make it scary; if they think they catch a glimpse of something in the dark, they scare themselves.”
The fact that the action of the piece takes place in an old, run- down theatre only adds to the fear factor.
“When you look out you really can see people cowering in their seats. Because the play is set in a theatre you can feel the buzz from the audience before the play even starts, and, of course, most theatres have a ghost - there are a lot of Grey Ladies knocking around. That’s great because it just adds to the atmosphere.”
Which means the actors have to be on their toes and ready for the unexpected themselves.
“There are only the two of us in the show, which brings with it good challenges. It’s a really exciting because there’s not one second you can switch off.
“I’ve seen some really big fellas jump out of their seats, cursing at the top of their lungs because they thought they saw something in the shadows. You have to be ready for that and not jump yourself.
“With a show like this, that has such a long running popularity, you have to want to carry on that tradition, to make it as good as it has been. I was worried that it might not live up to expectations, but it absolutely has done.
“I just hope that we can keep the flag flying so that if a young actor comes to see it they will want to be in it ten years from now. That we can inspire them in the way that I was inspired when I first saw it.”
The Woman In Black, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000