Writer: Susan Hill
Adaptor: Stephen Mallatratt
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Beth Steer
First performed in 1989, and enjoying a notoriously spooky, almost continuous theatre run during the 27 years since – Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (adapted by Stephen Mallatratt) has come to Cardiff’s New Theatre once more.
Like the lingering curse of the Woman in Black herself, it’s a production that’ll leave you thoroughly unsettled, hastily checking over your shoulder as you make your way home. Revolving around Mr Arthur Kipps (David Acton) – an elderly, retired solicitor with a ghastly tale to tell – and the Actor (Matthew Spencer) – an actor whose help he enlists to assist him, the play’s narrative jumps cleverly between location, time and character.
Acton’s performance morphs seamlessly from a portrayal of elderly, stuttering Kipps, hesitant to ‘perform’ his story, to various mysterious locals – cold and unforthcoming to a younger version of himself, Kipps at half his age. Spencer, too, makes great transitions between an exasperated actor, desperate to help bring a story to life, to a young Kipps – initially plucky and confident before slowly becoming terrified out of his wits.
To first time viewers, the first half may seem a little long winded – quite dialogue heavy and taking a fair amount of time to set the scene. For those who’ve seen the play before, however, this relatively slow pace only adds to the build-up of tension and sense of heightened expectation. The plot gallops in the second half – with every terrifying twist and turn – before coming to an abrupt conclusion, with a hair-raising twist.
The creative aspects are excellent – and the lines that draw attention to the various theatrical elements – such as ‘recorded sound’ and ‘staging’ – adds dramatically to the effect, as the actor and student discuss the importance of audience and imagination – a clever piece of meta-theatre. The representation of the Woman herself is spooky – though perhaps could’ve been even more so with some costume adjustments – and her spectre haunts the performance as intended.
The Woman in Black works hard to create excruciating tension – leaving the audience jumping out of their skins with gasps and nervous laughter at the slightest sound by the play’s conclusion. A tense, thrillingly scary production that’ll leave you wondering – did you really see a woman, in black, with a sunken face?
Runs until 10 June 2017 | Image: Tristram Kenton