Writer: Susan Hill
Adaption: Stephen Mallatratt
Director: Robin Herford
As a semblance of normality returns to theatre, it was good news to be able to attend the Grand Opera House on its first night back after some 18 months. And the Ambassador Theatre Group made certain that there would be a good-sized audience – and that they would enjoy themselves – by opening with a perennial favourite currently on tour.
The Woman in Black has enjoyed continuous success since the publication of Susan Hill’s novel in 1983. It tells of a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps (Hill obviously an H.G. Wells fan) who goes to attend the funeral and tie up the affairs of a reclusive widow who has died in a remote house off the North East coast. All the trappings of a Gothic mystery are there: the locals who fall inexplicably silent, the fog that swirls over the marshes, the causeway that is unpassable at times, the ancient graveyard. The story that emerges is sad rather than evil, but the supernatural power that is unleashed brings tragedy to many, including Arthur Kipps.
Four years after its publication the book was adapted as a Christmas production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough by Stephen Mallatratt. So, small theatre, small cast, in the round. How to adapt it? Mallatratt’s inspiration is still surprisingly ingenious: imagine Kipps as an old man wanting to present his story in a form his younger relatives will understand, enlisting the aid of an actor to bring it to life and The Actor insisting on developing it into a play, with himself playing the young Kipps and the unable-to-act Kipps taking all the other parts.
It’s amusing to imagine him pitching such a crazy idea to the Scarborough management, but Alan Ayckbourn has never been afraid of crazy ideas – and it went on and it worked, but surely, one would have thought, only in informal, more intimate theatres where its make-do-and-mend aesthetic is appropriate. In 1989 it opened in the West End and, with the odd change of theatre, it’s still going strong there and on tour to major venues!
Robin Herford’s production is no longer fresh, but Robert Goodale (Arthur Kipps) and Antony Eden (The Actor) get their laughs early on, with Goodale rather overdoing the dodderiness and theatrical incompetence. The laughs possibly last a bit longer than Mallatratt intended, though they are increasingly nervous as the terror is ratcheted up.
Eden, as The Actor, is suitably gung-ho and he invests the young Kipps with similar qualities while Goodale, convincingly troubled, has a quality of stillness that increases the tension. That tension, though, is created largely by apparitions and sound effects, with particular credit to Kevin Sleep (lighting) and Rod Mead (sound) and their successors, Matt Clutterham and Sebastian Frost. Michael Holt’s designs are mostly tatty-theatrical – props and costume all around – but his child’s nursery through the gauze has a beautiful pathos.
Finally Mallatratt adds an extra twist of his own when, in the apparent security of the story told and closure achieved, the final seconds of low-key dialogue produce a genuine frisson of terror tinged with malicious irony.
Runs until 18th September 2021