Australian acting legend John Waters on the set of The Woman In Black.

John Waters set to scare Perth audiences in The Woman In Black at His Majesty’s Theatre

Main Image: Australian acting legend John Waters on the set of The Woman In Black. Credit: Justin Nicholas /Woodward Productions

Tanya MacNaughtonSTM

Eighteen years after actor John Waters first took on the part of lawyer Arthur Kipps in the Australian theatre production of The Woman In Black, he can still remember its terrifying effect on audiences — even if he cannot recall a single part of the script.

“The actual words, none of them stuck at all,” Waters laughs.

“But that’s kind of a facility that we have. We learn things, we do them and it’s like when you clear out your old files from your computer, you chuck them out to make room for something else.”

Waters has returned to reprise the role, this time alongside Daniel MacPherson, in Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s acclaimed ghost story — the second longest-running play in West End history after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap — which provides audiences with a visceral experience.

“You experience it in your guts, like you do with a really great movie, except more so because there are live people on stage doing this to you,” 75-year-old Waters says.

“I would describe it as a sort of gothic horror, but it has a number of things about it that make it slightly unique in that regard. It’s not all about the scares and the frights. It’s about loss and death and the exorcism of horror from past events by owning them and living through them, so it works on a lot of levels.

Daniel MacPherson and John Waters in The Woman In Black.
Camera IconDaniel MacPherson and John Waters in The Woman In Black. Credit: Justin Nicholas/Justin Nicholas

“It’s not something where I can give too much away, but there is a play within a play, where Arthur Kipps wants to tell the story of what happened to him 30 years earlier, to his family, and he hires a young actor to help him. It’s quite an extraordinary way of telling the story and it’s very immediate to the audience.”

While no stranger to making audiences feel a range of emotions across his 50 years in stage, screen and music — from film Breaker Morant and John Lennon-inspired one-man show Looking Through A Glass Onion to television series Rake and Offspring — Waters is enjoying the opportunity to make audiences shriek out loud again since the play’s Australian tour opened in Brisbane at the start of May.

“Usually there’s one voice that’s louder than the others, who then gets embarrassed,” Waters chuckles.

“There’s a kind of nervous laughter. It’s up to us to manipulate that and you do it by leading people to expect something to happen, and then it doesn’t happen, and then they think nothing’s going to happen and something does.

“It’s organically very gripping, there’s no high tech about it. It’s just old theatrical tricks, but the audience are included almost as a third actor in the piece. We don’t interact with them, but we do direct a lot of stuff towards them.

“I went to the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden to see the play before the first time I did it. It’s an extraordinary construction of a play, so it was quite difficult to appreciate it from reading a script.

“From the actor’s point of view, if you haven’t seen it, and you read the script, you think, ‘well, how does this work?’ You find out how by seeing it. I could see how it would be staged and it all became a lot clearer to me. It’s an audience experience.”

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson to star in The Woman In Black.
Camera IconJohn Waters and Daniel MacPherson to star in The Woman In Black. Credit: Supplied

The opportunity to work with Neighbours and City Homicide star Daniel MacPherson for the first time was another drawcard, MacPherson continuing in the paranormal theme after his 2023 stint in Melbourne production 2:22 A Ghost Story.

The pair experienced a dynamic rehearsal period with associate director Antony Eden, on a slightly rewritten script that Waters believes only makes the production more powerful.

“It’s a play that’s been going on yonks, but it does keep itself abreast of a few little changes here and there when they think ‘well, you know, perhaps we could tighten that bit or change that slightly’. So there’s a couple of spots where it’s been changed for the better,” he shares.

“I feel that this one is really punching above its weight.”

Watching MacPherson get to discover everything the play has to offer an actor has also been a thrill for Waters, who himself is a fan of the horror genre, when it is done properly.

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson in The Woman In Black.
Camera IconJohn Waters and Daniel MacPherson in The Woman In Black. Credit: Justin Nicholas/Justin Nicholas

The duo had many a Zoom meeting before rehearsals even started. MacPherson was keen to learn all about the play during the preliminary process but his seasoned colleague decided to leave some aspects for the former Dancing With The Stars co-host to uncover for himself along the way.

“He’s just risen to the challenge brilliantly,” Waters says of his co-star.

“He’s done quite a bit of stage work actually and he will surprise those people who know him only from his screen work, at how great and dynamic he is on stage.”

Starting his own career as a singer and bass player in a band, London-raised Waters — son of Scottish character actor Russell Waters — was 20 when he decided to try his luck on a 10-pound trip to Australia after a recording contract did not come to fruition.

It resulted in him being cast in rock musical Hair, which led to an agent and variety of work, including his 20-year run on Play School.

“My father was well known in the business without being particularly famous and my school friends would say ‘I saw your dad on the telly last night’ and I’d say ‘yes, he’s an actor’,” Waters recounts.

Camera IconJohn Waters with Benita Collings on Play School. Credit: Unknown/Supplied by Subject

“I started on Play School in the early 70s when my two oldest children from my first marriage, who are now 53 and 50, were very little. The kids at their kindergarten would say, ‘your dad’s in Play School’ and they just sort of looked at them like, ‘so what, isn’t everybody’s?’ like it was just a natural thing.”

While Waters originally took the Play School gig as a side hustle, to prevent him from having to make coffee or drive cabs between jobs, he says it soon became a much more fulfilling experience than he had anticipated.

“It was a rich and rewarding thing to do, because preschool children are great, they just take you for what you are,” he muses.

“They’re not fans, they don’t want your autograph, they just say ‘hello’ to you in the street, and it’s really lovely.”

John Waters in The Woman In Black.
Camera IconJohn Waters in The Woman In Black. Credit: Justin Nicholas/Justin Nicholas

Now a father of five, he lives with wife Zoe Burton in the Southern Highlands of NSW with their 21-year-old son Archie and 17-year-old twins, who are in the midst of doing their Higher School Certificate.

Yet despite being someone with many stories to tell, Waters is in no rush to write an autobiography.

“I actually have started a musicology based on the music in my life, but I don’t want to write a book about ‘he went to school there and grew up there and did this and then he did that’, it doesn’t interest me,” he shares.

“People have said to me ‘oh, but it’s quite an interesting life’. If it interests other people, I don’t know, maybe when I’m 90 I’ll do it, but right now I don’t think about it.”

The Woman In Black is at His Majesty’s Theatre, May 30 to June 9. Tickets at artsculturetrust.wa.gov.au.