Writer: Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill
Director: Robin Herford
Assistant Director: Antony Eden
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s short story, The Woman in Black, has now been running in theatres for 27 years. With such a long run it would be no surprise if audiences already knew the plot and its revelations. But this classic ghost story continues to keep audiences gripped, thrilled and sitting on the edge of their seats.
And why not? An inaccessible gothic house, isolated and cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded by marshland, covered in fog and avoided by the locals. This mysterious setting is hauntingly perfect. A lost child, a grief-stricken mother, madness, revenge and death, complete with graveyards, candles and shadows, The Woman in Black has all the elements for a spine-chilling ghost story.
The story begins with the old Arthur Kipps enlisting the help of a young Actor to tell the tale from his youth when he was a young solicitor sent to wind up the affairs of a reclusive woman after her death. As the older Kipps, played by David Acton, relates his story, the Actor, played by Matthew Spencer, starts to take on the role of the young Kipps and the story starts to unfold.
Mallatratt’s version for stage of this story is played by two actors throughout. Much of the play revolves around the experiences of Spencer’s young Kipps, leaving Acton to play all the support parts. While Acton has the heavy load of carrying off so many parts, Spencer has much of the responsibility for getting the hairs to stand up on the backs of our necks. With just a clothes rail on stage so they can swap coats to support their character changes, both actors deftly slide in and out of roles seamlessly.
Michael Holt’s set, lighting and sound from Kevin Sleep and Gareth Owen, are fundamental to this production. The house at first exists as a projected backdrop through the fog and mist. Once inside the decay and abandonment are plainly evoked by Holt’s simple use of huge, ripped and fraying, grey swags across the set. Sleep and Owen’s effects and sharp direction from Robin Herford to keep the tension are needed to deliver the shocks and the audience is not disappointed and are out of our seats several times.
This production does have a very slow start. It is 30 minutes before Kipps really starts his story, the time before is spent establishing the role the older Kipps wanted the young Actor to take. This may have been done to build the tension but it is certainly too long. Rather than aim for sinister tragedy this version opts for a more light-hearted, almost comic balance to the disturbing tale.
All a perfectly valid approach and certainly the audience in the theatre leaves happy. But once the adrenaline levels normalise it does feel like this choice diminishes the tragedy of the story and something is lost.
But for pure suspensful, spine-chilling storytelling this is an excellent evening out.
Runs until 19 November 2016 then continues to tour | Image: Tristram Kenton