OUTSIDE EDGE / Duncan Steer on the shortest lead in the West End

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The Independent Culture
A PUB quiz question: who plays the title role in the Hitchcock film Rebecca?

It's a trick: no one does, because the character doesn't appear. The Woman in Black, the Gothic ghost play which has been in the West End for over five years, is different, but only just. The title role is perhaps the shortest in West End theatre history - a handful of fleeting, non- speaking appearances. Ten minutes a night, no more. It's Tricia Morrish's job.

'I wanted a steady job,' she explains. 'I didn't want to be going to interviews or be in a show that might only run a 12-week season. I wanted to live in London, take an English degree and earn enough over the summer to support myself. I looked at what was on in the West End and thought this is ideal: I have no female lead to understudy. I knew it was a good show and, for a small part, you get a wonderful reception. So I wrote to the producer . . .' And so, at the next change of cast, she landed a very plum summer job indeed.

Morrish was in the theatre for 10 years before she returned to college last year. After debuting opposite Alan Bates, she later appeared with Rowan Atkinson in The Sneeze, but her progress wasn't entirely smooth. 'I was scraping a living, really,' she reflects. 'Some jobs were compromises, to pay the mortgage - and I don't think theatre should be about that.'

Her few minutes a night as the Woman in Black are not the shortest visible contribution Tricia Morrish has made to a West End production. As an understudy for Trevor Nunn's production of Heartbreak House, she never made it on stage. 'Five times I was called on: I had the wig on, the tights and the make-up and then either Felicity Kendall or Imogen Stubbs would walk through the stage door late. I didn't know whether to be angry or relieved.'

In her current role, she is enjoying the best of both worlds: no lines; maximum audience reaction. 'When I tell people I'm in a play called The Woman in Black, in the West End, playing the Woman in Black, they think I'm a leading light,' she says. 'Sometimes, I just let them believe it.'