Significant People: Stephen Mallatratt

This article was first published in the May 2015 edition of the SJT Circular.

Stephen Mallatratt

by Simon Murgatroyd

During the past six decades, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has nurtured an extraordinary amount of playwrights who have gone onto notable success. High on this list must be Stephen Mallatratt.

In 1974, Stephen joined the company at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre as an actor, his first role playing John in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s
Absent Friends.

He was a prolific actor with the company appearing in 27 different productions over the years notably including the world premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays
Bedroom Farce and Confusions.

But it was as playwright that Stephen became best known and it was Alan Ayckbourn who encouraged him to put pen to paper. His first play,
An Englishman’s Home, was produced at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in October 1975 and Alan described it as a ‘practically perfect first play’. It subsequently went on a UK tour in repertoire with Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play Just Between Ourselves - quite a showcase for a new writer.

Stephen would go on to write
The Chimes (1975), Mother Country (1976) and Saint Trixie (1979) before leaving the company in 1979. He returned in 1985 and, appointed as Resident Writer, he wrote Touch Wood And Whistle (1986), Pay Day Night (1986), The Haunt Of Mr Fossett (1988) and The Turn Of The Screw (1988); tantalisingly a play called Wonderland was announced for the 1987 season but never produced.

But it is for one play he is best remembered. His adaptation of Susan Hill’s
The Woman In Black for the studio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1987.
The Artistic Director Robin Herford - Alan Ayckbourn being on a two year sabbatical at the National Theatre - wanted a “Christmas stocking filler” and asked Stephen for suggestions for a studio play with no more than four actors and no substantial set.

Stephen was a great fan of Hill’s novella and suggested adapting
The Woman In Black, although Robin was not convinced, noting it was a period piece with a dozen characters.

Unperturbed, Stephen wrote the play for - famously - just two actors, minimal staging and a challenging sound-plot. Presented with the play, Robin later noted it “not only solved my budgetary problems but actually enhanced the original premise of Susan’s story.”

The rest is history. The play ran for three weeks at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and despite middling reviews, the word-of-mouth led to packed performances. Within two years, it was produced in the West End where it has remained ever since.

Stephen left the company in 1987 and forged a successful career in television, notably writing for
Coronation Street - where he had already been con tributing scripts since 1985 - until 1996 - which interestingly had two SJT connections.

Interestingly, Stephen's connection with the popular television soap opera had two significant Stephen Joseph Theatre connections. Stephen was invited to join the show’s script-writing team by then producer Mervyn Watson who Stephen had first met at this theatre, when Mervyn was Associate Director.

Stephen also notably brought his friend the actor, David Nielson, into the soap opera and helped develop the much loved character of Roy Cropper; David also appeared in the world premiere of Stephen’s play
Touch, Wood & Whistle in Scarborough in 1986.

Tragically, Stephen’s life was cut short when on 22 November 2004 he died from leukaemia. His legacy, though, is a play known throughout the world which continues to thrive.

By reviving
The Woman In Black as part of its 60th Anniversary, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is not only celebrating an extraordinary play which began life here, but also a playwright whose contribution to this theatre should never be under-estimated nor forgotten.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.