What’s so special woman in black, and why is it still operating in the West End after 33 years? As someone who is about to play it for the 1000th time (spread across 4 contracts since 2009), I can offer an insider’s perspective that provides only one of many answers to that question.
The cast changes every 9 months – and some actors are invited back for a second, third or fourth stint. One thing only insiders know is that original director Robin Herford works with every new cast.
I’ve done a few “takeovers” in major West End musicals when the original creative team has moved back to New York or wherever and the personnel manager is doing their best to make sure every new cast is up to it, usually using an internal “Bible” that documents every move and every deal dictated by the original director.
Take control The woman in black is a completely different repetition process. You get everything straight from the horse’s mouth. And Robin, having been an actor himself and a key member of Alan Ayckbourn’s company, has an extraordinary ability to make you feel like you’re creating the part for the first time.
For obvious reasons, certain aspects of the production are “fixed”: the schedules of stage activities to adapt to sound cues and lighting changes, the times and locations of costume changes. But there are also points where you are encouraged to find your own solutions, you have the freedom to try things out and find out what works and what doesn’t. The best example, and one of my favorite moments in the series, is when Arthur Kipps actually finds out how to act.
As anyone who’s seen the play knows, the opening moments are a little disconcerting for the audience, as we see a man on stage who has none of the qualities that actors are supposed to have. He has no stage presence, mumbles his lines, has no sense of rhythm, no idea how to get the audience’s attention. And it’s no wonder, because Arthur Kipps is a rather unprepossessing, dry-as-dust lawyer in his 50s or 60s who has an extraordinary and tragic story to tell about his encounters decades earlier with the ghostly woman in black, events that changed his life forever. After writing it all down, he hires a young actor for a few days to help tell the story, and they meet in the dark and empty Fortune Theater.
As the actor becomes excited by the dramatic potential of the story and quickly adapts it to the scene, Arthur must impersonate the various people he has encountered en route to his encounter with the ghost. There’s quite a bit of comedy in the opening scenes, as the young actor’s talent and confidence contrast with Kipps’ clumsy incompetence. Basically, everything you were taught in drama school to make you a good actor is going out the window. You do the opposite. And in this intimate theatre, you can sense part of the audience thinking “Is it all going to be like this?”
But the actor picked up on a detail in Arthur’s story and managed to acquire a pair of half-rimmed glasses exactly like the ones worn by young Kipps’ main partner, Mr. Bentley. When Kipps puts on these glasses, he becomes Mr. Bentley. It’s the only consistent “trigger” in each actor’s interpretation of that moment. Otherwise, those of us who have played Kipps over the years all have our own way of making this process believable.
My Kipps suddenly remembers that Bentley had a peculiar way of pronouncing words like “home” and “town.” Its vowel sound is a higher class assignment, more like “eye” than “ow”. Once he puts his tongue around it, he suddenly becomes “real” as Mr. Bentley.
It may be that after 1,100 performances, I try something else. If so, Robin will introduce himself and let me know if it works or not. With a working process – and “work in progress” – like this, no wonder it still feels fresh after 33 years.
The Woman In Black takes place at the Fortune Theater, currently on booking until April 29, 2023