The Woman in Black – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Susan Hill

Adaptor: Stephen Mallatratt

Director: Robin Herford

For thirty years, Arthur Kipps has carried a huge burden. When his family, in all innocence, ask him for a ghost story one Christmas Eve, he is driven to try to tell them his story in the hope that by doing so he may be relieved of the horrors it has left him with. He knows he has but one chance to get the telling right so hires an actor to help him to prepare. The two men form a strange alliance as they rehearse the telling of the story in an empty theatre where we learn his story: how the young Arthur was dispatched to a remote village to wind up the affairs of the reclusive Mrs Drablow, who died alone in her gothic pile. The locals react strangely to his quest and gradually we learn why as weird phenomena occur around Arthur (now played in a play-within-a-play by the actor) and we gradually learn the significance of the woman in black.

As we enter the auditorium, we’re confronted by a largely empty stage with a few items of theatrical paraphernalia scattered around – the actor explains to Arthur that they will draw pictures in the audience’s mind, even down to an imaginary dog that, when the time comes, we are all convinced we can see perfectly. Despite his nervous disposition, Arthur tries his best improving as he goes: and so our cast of two, Arthur (Malcolm James) and the actor (Mark Hawkins), successfully fill the stage with characters with Arthur playing the necessary supporting roles. Rarely have so many been scared by so few with so little.

The staging is simple and the theatrical tricks employed would be familiar to theatregoers a hundred years ago when the main story is set. Not least among these is Kevin Sleep’s atmospheric lighting design and eerie projections that focus our attention and help us move between locations with ease. There’s some use of jumpscares with the attendant nervous giggles, though this trick is perhaps overused a touch. But in general, Robin Herford’s direction keeps us on the edge of our seats, building the tension as we nervously anticipate the next reveal in an atmosphere so tense that a pin dropping would feel like a thunderous crash.
Hawkins gives us the gradual disintegration of the young Kipps, from keen clerk with a job to do to the largely broken man we see in James’ character. The older Kipps has the opposite journey as he grows in confidence in the telling of the story, only for his mood to fall back as he recalls and relives those events so long ago. Both actors work tirelessly to weave the web, seamlessly inhabiting their characters. And we become invested in their characters as they manipulate our emotions.

Originally performed as a low-budget adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel in 1987, The Woman in Black subsequently became the longest-running play in the West End, after The Mousetrap. It closed there earlier this year and is perhaps beginning to show its age a touch. Nevertheless, it’s a simple story told exceedingly well. Just think twice before travelling in a pony and trap….

Runs until 9 September 2023 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

A simple story told well

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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