By Lynette Horner
Scarborough, England is a picturesque destination located on the northeast coast of Yorkshire. This seaside resort boasts sweeping ocean views against dramatic cliffs, a castle—and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, one of the most influential seedbeds of new writers for the theatre. It also provided the backdrop for the collaboration of Stephen Mallatratt and Susan Hill and the birth of one of the longest running stage plays in theatre history, The Woman in Black.
Stephen Mallatratt’s road to Scarborough began in post World War II North London where he was born and raised. He began his love affair with the theatre as a child after attending theatrical productions at the Watford Palace Theatre. Throughout his youth he gained experience in local amateur theatrical companies. After leaving school he took a brief detour working in construction, always keeping an eye on his dream of training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. At the age of twenty-one he realized that dream. Upon the completion of his studies he joined the acting company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Mallatratt appeared in leading roles in many of the plays produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and would continue to act throughout his career. But, more importantly, the Stephen Joseph Theatre provided the climate that germinated a discovery that Mallatratt was also a gifted playwright. Of his abilities, his friend and colleague, Peter Wilson wrote,
“We first met when I directed his play Comic Cuts in the late 1980s. He told me that Comic Cuts had been written at white heat (like so much at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in those days) because a new play of that name had been advertised and cast before the theatre discovered that the script hadn’t been written. So Stephen had to take the title and the cast and write a new play of his own to occupy the slot. . . . Nothing had prepared me for the radiant accuracy of the farcical engine that Stephen had created, or the vivid speech patterns peppered through the script” (www.thewomaninblack.com/cast/Stephen.php, 2 April 2009).
Mallatratt contributed nearly a dozen plays to the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s repertoire including The Woman in Black, an adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic chiller by the same name.
Susan Hill was born in Scarborough in 1942. She credits her mother for nurturing her love of the theatre as she took young Susan to almost every production of the Scarborough Repertory Theatre. Susan recounted that she probably didn’t understand a great deal, but loved the sights and smells of the theatre experience. As a young teenager, Susan attended many productions at the experimental theatre-in-the- round, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, until her family moved from Scarborough when she was sixteen years old.
She published her first novel before she entered King’s College in London. As a budding writer, she was taken under the wing of the novelists Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband C.P. Snow. As she orbited their circle she was brought into contact with such notable writers as W.H Auden and T.S. Eliot. She is the recipient of the Summerset Maugham Award for her novel I’m King of the Castle and the Whitbread Award for her novel The Bird of Night.
Susan’s memories of her youth in Scarborough provide the thinly disguised backdrop for several of her early novels. In 1983, Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black was published. Mallatratt read it and envisioned how it could be adapted for the stage using very little by way of scenery and props, and number of actors for that matter. His vision relied on the most chilling aspects of the play to be created by the audience’s imagination.
Of their collaboration and unexpected success of The Woman in Black, Susan Hill wrote:
“The play of my ghost novel The Woman in Black owes everything to Stephen. He read it, saw how it could be adapted, and did so brilliantly . . . and the rest is theatre history.
“It works. He knew it would work and I didn’t believe him. What a fool. As soon as I saw it, in the tiny studio in the old Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, I knew that I had been a fool not to trust in Stephen.
“We all owe him a debt we can’t repay . . . we? We are the dozens . . . hundreds, indeed, of people who have been kept in work and an income and a reputation, for some eighteen years, because of his genius in seeing what could be done with a book that otherwise would have sunk quietly out of sight” (www.susan-hill.com, 2 April 2009).
Both Stephen Mallatratt and Susan Hill were surprised by the success of The Woman in Black. Susan tells of how she and Stephen would “often have a laugh about the play we thought would run in Scarborough for six weeks and which went on into the West End for fifteen years. It always seemed funny somehow” (www.susan-hill.com, 2 April 2009).
In addition to his stage career, Mallatratt’s acting credits include a role in the acclaimed movie, Chariots of Fire, and on British television as the vet John Stokes in Emmerdale. He appeared twice in the British serial Coronation Street, for which he was also a member of the writing team and produced 115 scripts. Like The Woman in Black, Stephen Mallatratt is noted for his exceptional ability to adapt other works to theatre and film. Among his later works were the 2002 adaptation of the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.
In 2004, Mallatratt scripted Island and War depicting the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II, and in which he also played a small role as the vicar.
In 2004, Stephan Mallatratt was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and died in November of that year. Tributes from friends and colleagues described him as gentle, reliable, principled, loyal, and sometimes melancholy. Among the crown jewels of English theatre, playwright and actor Stephen Mallatratt may appear a minor gem. But, if success is measured by the ability to create a work that continues to make history as one of the longest running productions in London’s West End, then Stephen Mallatratt and his work have to be considered prize gems.