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Guest Blog: Julian Forsyth Talks About His 1000th Appearance in THE WOMAN IN BLACK & the Innovative Rehearsal Process

The actor discusses the longevity of the play and returning to the role of Arthur Kipps

The Woman In Black

What's so special about The Woman In Black, and why is it still running in the West End after 33 years? As someone who is about to perform in it for the 1,000th time (spread over 4 contracts since 2009), I can offer an insider's view that provides just one of several answers to that question.

The cast changes every 9 months - and some actors are asked back for a second, third or fourth stint. One thing that only insiders know is that the original director Robin Herford works with every new cast.

I've done a few 'takeovers' in big West End musicals when the original creative team has gone back to New York or wherever and the staff director is doing their valiant best to make sure that each new cast comes up to scratch, usually using an in-house 'Bible' that documents every move and every bit of business dictated by the original director.

Taking over The Woman In Black is a completely different rehearsal 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 as though you are creating the role for the first time.

For obvious reasons, there are some aspects of the production that are 'fixed': timings of stage business to fit with sound cues and lighting changes, timings and locations of costume changes. But there are also points where you are encouraged to find your own solutions, afforded the freedom to try things out and discover what works and what doesn't. The best example, and one of my favourite moments in the show, is when Arthur Kipps actually discovers how to act.

As anyone who has seen the play knows, the opening moments are a little disconcerting for the audience, as you see a man on stage who has none of the qualities actors are supposed to have. He has zero stage presence, mumbles his lines, has no sense of pace, no idea of how to get an audience's attention. And no wonder, for Arthur Kipps is a rather unprepossessing, dry-as-dust solicitor in his 50s or 60s who happens to have an extraordinary and tragic story to tell of his encounters decades earlier with the ghostly woman in black, events which changed his life for ever. Having written it all down, he has hired a young actor for a few days to help him tell the story, and they meet in the dark, empty Fortune Theatre.

As the actor becomes excited by the story's dramatic potential and adapts it at speed for the stage, Arthur is required to impersonate the various people he met en route to his encounter with the ghost. There is quite a bit of comedy in the early scenes, as the skill and confidence of the young actor is contrasted with the bumbling incompetence of Kipps. Basically, everything you were taught in drama school to make you a good actor goes out the window. You do the opposite. And in that intimate theatre, you can sense some of the audience thinking "Is it all going to be like this?!"

The Woman In Black
Julian Forsyth & Matthew Spencer in
The Woman In Black
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

But the actor has picked up on a detail in Arthur's story and managed to acquire a pair of half-rimmed spectacles exactly like those worn by the young Kipps' senior partner, Mr Bentley. When Kipps dons those glasses, he becomes Mr Bentley. That is the only 'trigger' consistent in every actor's interpretation of that moment. Otherwise, those of us who have played Kipps over the years all have our own way of making that process believable.

My Kipps suddenly remembers that Bentley had a particular way of pronouncing words like 'house' and 'town'. His vowel sound is an upper class affectation, more like 'eye' than 'ow'. Once he has got his tongue round that, he suddenly becomes 'real' as Mr Bentley.

It may be that, after 1,100 performances, I might try something else. If so, Robin will turn up and tell me whether it works or not. With a working process - and "work in progress" - like that, no wonder it still feels fresh after 33 years.

The Woman In Black is running at the Fortune Theatre, currently booking until 29 April 2023


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From This Author - Guest Blog: Julian Forsyth


Guest Blog: Julian Forsyth Talks About His 1000th Appearance in THE WOMAN IN BLACK & the Innovative Rehearsal ProcessGuest Blog: Julian Forsyth Talks About His 1000th Appearance in THE WOMAN IN BLACK & the Innovative Rehearsal Process
September 13, 2022

What’s so special about The Woman in Black, and why is it still running in the West End after 33 years? As someone who is about to perform in it for the 1,000th time, I can offer an insider’s view that provides just one of several answers to that question.