Stephen Mallatratt, the actor-turned-playwright responsible for adapting Susan Hill’s 1970s thriller The Woman in Black - now the second longest-running play in the West End after The Mousetrap - has died at the age of 57.

Born in north London on 15 June 1947, Mallatratt trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He was spotted by Alan Ayckbourn shortly after leaving drama school while appearing in rep in Ipswich. Ayckbourn lured him to Scarborough where he originated roles in Confusions, Absent Friends and Bedroom Farce amongst other plays. Mallatratt continued to work with Ayckbourn and return periodically to the Stephen Joseph Theatre throughout his career.

It was during Ayckbourn’s two-year sabbatical from Scarborough, while he moved south to the National, that Malatratt wrote The Woman in Black as a ‘stocking filler’ in December 1987. Less than two years later, it transferred to the West End’s Fortune Theatre, where it celebrated its 15th birthday this past June (See News, 9 Jun 2004). Since opening, the play has been seen by over two million viewers in London, been translated into 12 languages and produced in 40 countries.

In an obituary in yesterday’s Guardian, Michael Coveney described The Woman in Black as a “beautifully wrought, classic thriller for two actors, the successor to Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth”. Over the years, West End cast members have included Joseph Fiennes (in his first professional role), Michael Grandage (now Donmar Warehouse artistic director, in his last acting role), Edward Petherbridge, Michael Siberry, Patrick Toomey, Christopher Ravenscroft and Sebastian Harcombe.

Robin Herford - who, as Scarborough’s acting artistic director, commissioned the The Woman in Black and who has directed every West End cast since - told “It is such an important play because it says something about the very nature of the dramatic experience. It speaks about the liveness of theatre, about what actors do best (becoming other people) and how the audience’s imagination is there to be tapped. You don’t need massive scenic effects or massive casts. You just need the ability to suspend disbelief and to go with the story in the manner in which it’s being told.”

Although best known for The Woman in Black, Mallatratt’s other plays included An Englishman’s Home, Mother Country, Touch Wood and Whistle and The Glory of the Garden. In more recent years, he wrote primarily for television, as a long-serving member of the Coronation Street script team and author of dramatic serials such as The Forsyte Saga and Island at War.

According to Herford, however, Malatratt’s screen success had not diminished his interest in the stage. The director told “Over the past two years, we had been talking about doing another theatre project. I really the miss the fact that’s that not going to happen.” He added: “Stephen was a lovely guy. The profession and the planet are the poorer for his passing.”

Stephen Mallatratt died of leukaemia on 22 November 2004.

- by Hannah Kennedy & Terri Paddock