Pumpkins grin evilly in the yard. Pint-size ghosts and covens of mini-witches cluster on the doorstep. Halloween’s running its chilly fingers down the nation’s spine again but, as we mortals shudder at the spookiness of it all, Robin Herford sits on the stage of the Fortune Theatre and merely… laughs.
Though it’s hardly the kind of bone-freezing cackle you might expect from the man who co-created West End fright-festThe Woman In Black twenty-five years ago and has been its director ever since.
In fact a warmer, more urbane gentleman than Mr Herford you’d be hard-pressed to meet. TP.com hooked up with him during rehearsals for the current UK tour of TWIB, and we were rewarded with an insight into the singularly scary theatrical ghost story that he and playwright Stephen Malatratt originally staged as a one-off Christmas show in a theatre bar in Scarborough in 1987.
"People were terribly scared," Herford says, recalling an incident involving one of the many young theatregoers who routinely make up a big chunk of TWIB’s audience.
“I was in the audience watching and there were a bunch of stroppy kids from some comprehensive saying they weren’t scared at the interval. And when it finished someone said to one of them, were you scared. And he said, I was so f***ing busy filling my f***ing trousers I didn’t have time to be scared!”
Which is par for the course as far as this particular play’s concerned. In an era of in-your-face blockbusters, TWIB’s minimal staging, two-actor cast and solidly traditional storytelling continue to entertain and genuinely unnerve audiences in equal measure.
Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway
Herford works on five or six other plays a year, which enables him to maintain his long-running role as director ofTWIB, which he loves like his own child and intends to stick with "forever". What’s the secret to keeping it fresh for a quarter of a century?
“Largely it’s a question of trusting the actors," he says. "You don’t need to strive to do anything to make it different to keep it fresh, you just give it to new people and let their imaginations and intelligence get to work on the script."
Currently entrusted with that responsibility on tour are Julian Forsyth and Anthony Eden, both of whom have previously served with honour in TWIB’s West End incarnation at the Fortune. But it’s not just the actors’ imaginations that have been crucial to the show’s success.
"Young people’s imaginations are that bit closer to the surface," Herford says, "and if this is their first experience of the theatre - which it might be - it’s not some Shakespeare that they don’t understand. It’s something where they’re allowed to shriek and scream. It’s great. I love it."
Favourite West End Haunt
Sitting in the stalls in the intimate Fortune Theatre in the afternoon, sans audience, the scent of incense hangs eerily in the air. It’s easy to see why the little theatre became TWIB’s long-term West End 'haunt'. It’s charming, but at the same time, just a little bit spooksome. A lot spooksome, actually.
"One of the reasons that I suggested it be set in a theatre," Herford says, "is that they’re spooky. When you’re finishing a lighting session at three in the morning and realise you’ve left your jacket in the green room, it’s not…pleasant."
But - we are compelled to ask - has he ever actually found himself on the receiving end of a bona fide, ashen-faced ghostly encounter there?
"The upper wings are spooky," he says. "We’ve had more than one actor who was not happy waiting to go onstage for the second half. A woman who was playing a ghost swears she saw someone in a box up there. But who am I to say? I’m just a western rationalist sceptic.”
The Woman In Black is now putting the willies up the regions on its UK tour. View the tour website here. Or, if you want more information and tickets for TWIB at the Fortune Theatre in the West End, click here.