Actor David Acton tells Viv Hardwick why The Woman In Black is theatre’s scariest stage play... and how he’d loved to meet a ghost

THE theatre’s phone system has gone into meltdown and refuses to accept in-coming calls and actor David Acton’s mobile phone has a signal “like being in the bowels of the earth rather than Bromley”. Could we be experiencing the impact of staging The Woman In Black, the world’s most terrifying theatre show?

“The ghost of The Woman In Black is fiddling with all the phone lines. I understand you’ve been trying to get through for over an hour,” laughs Acton, on the eve of this fright-fest heading to Newcastle Theatre Royal at the end of this month.

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“I did hear a phone ringing in another dressing room, but I couldn’t get to it,” adds the man playing lawyer Arthur Kipps, who sets off the action by commissioning The Actor (Matthew Spencer) to retell the story of deadly dealings with a Victorian spectre.

His comment revives images of the locked children’s room in a house cut off by the daily tides which is just one of many scary scenes in Susan Hill’s best-selling horror story which has gripped audiences in 42 countries.

Having appeared in the West End version of The Woman In Black and now on tour, you wonder if established actor Acton agrees that this is his industry’s best stage thriller. “It’s a fabulous play and Susan Hill wrote a wonderful novel in the vein of the Victorian melodramas like Wilkie Collins’ Woman In White and the adaptation is very close to that novel. I’m only saying that because the 2012 film (starring Daniel Radcliffe), which I really enjoyed, did rather change the story a bit. So, I feel that it’s nice to know that we’re being accurate to Hill’s original story. The adaptation is terribly clever because it is for two peoples, or two-and-a-half people (including a dog and apparition). I can say that, in these days of health and safety, that all the screaming is under control now,” Acton jokes.

Scarborough lays claim to The Woman In Black because the resort’s Stephen Joseph Theatre staged Stephen Mallatratt’s – who created plays for Alan Ayckbourn’s venue – first performance in 1987.

While the imagination runs riot about the setting for the location of the fictional town of Crythin Gifford, and the remote island house beyond, there are suspicions that Holy Island might well have influenced Hill’s plot as much as her Norfolk heritage.

“People have pointed out that if you were travelling to East Anglia, because the Norwich area is mentioned in the play, you wouldn’t be changing trains at Crewe. I thought it was Susan Hill being slightly baffling, with the Holy Island idea displaying her being obfuscating, but it was down to her having a terrible sense of geography,” jokes Acton.

He says he enjoys horror, but doesn’t regard it as an area of expertise. “I also don’t have any knowledge of ghostly experiences and I almost wish I had seen a ghost because I’ve always been totally sceptical about the subject. Wouldn’t it be nice to see one because lots of perfectly sane, sensible people say they’ve had these extraordinary sightings that have been shared with others who seen exactly the same thing. You feel that there has to be something in it.”

With so many theatres claiming to be haunted and Acton touring for years with companies like the RSC how is it possible he’s never encountered a spectre on the stairs? “There was a theatre a couple of weeks ago where the manager, a hundred years ago, was impoverished by gambling debts and was skimming money off the tills. It was only £150, but he got discovered and he shot himself and his ghost was supposed to wander the theatre. There was also a beheading at another venue involving a sword, but we’re so far into the tour that I’ve forgotten which theatre. I keep half-an-ear listening all the time, but so far nothing as jolly as a ghost has appeared,” says Acton.

His spirit has to go into playing seven different characters telling the events of a woman’s terrible revenge on anyone who discovers her secret.

“We all have our moments on stage. It’s sometimes like when you’re driving the car and you go to indicate and turn the windscreen wipers on by mistake. Your lines suddenly go out of your head and you think, ‘What the hell comes next?’, and between the two of you, you get back on track. There have been no major disasters, although there was a moment when Matthew Spencer gets me to try a spare pair of spectacles and they fell apart in my hand. One lens came out and I pressed them to my face, said ‘Oh that’s how you do it’ and put them down as quickly as I could,” Acton says.

His last season of RSC visits to Newcastle came in 2002-2003. “It was fantastic that the company brought plays to three theatres in the city. I came up for three seasons and that middle session between Stratford and London was something we always looked forward to. Six weeks, with all the plays going on and the company moving up there, plus the fabulous audiences and the beautiful Theatre Royal. It was a high spot of the whole two-year cycle,” says Acton.

  • The Woman In Black, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Monday, April 24 to Saturday, April 29. Box Office: 08448-112121 or theatreroyal.co.uk

The producers of The Woman In Black have given What’s On a pair of tickets to the show plus a goodie bag with signed copy of the book, tote bag, fridge magnets and mug for one lucky horror fan.

To stand a chance of winning just tell us which North Yorkshire seaside town first staged Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s book.

Put your answer on a postcard and send it to The Woman In Black competition, What’s On, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF. Closing date is noon on Monday. Normal Newsquest North-East competition rules apply.