The Woman in Black – Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

Writer: Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

As a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps had an unsettling experience that has had a profound effect on his entire life. Now, as an older man, he hopes to exorcise the ghost by writing an account of what happened and then sharing it with family and friends. And so he has hired a theatre and the time of a young actor to help him in his exposition. Kipps is clearly unused to public speaking, so the story-telling evening he imagined is transformed into a play-within-a-play in which the younger actor takes Kipps’ words and performs them in character as the young Kipps as the increasingly confident older man fleshes out the other characters we meet on the way.

As the two men in the play’s present get to know one another, it is humour that is initially to the fore as the young actor despairs of drawing a good performance from Kipps. Kipps initially rails against the idea of a ‘performance’ that might be entertaining – his story is far too serious for that. The two men slip in and out of character with ease. But after the interval, with Kipps’ story well advanced, the mood changes. Atmospheric lighting and sound draw us in and what might appear laughable effects suddenly become more sinister, eliciting shrieks and nervous laughter from the audience as we are swept to the final scenes of the story.

David Acton is the older Kipps. He imbues the character with nervousness and fear at the beginning but visibly grows as he watches the actor play himself and provide the exorcism he, Kipps, seeks. By the end, he is becoming positively chipper, enjoying the theatricality and playing his parts to perfection, according to his own memories. Matthew Spencer as the actor has boundless energy and enthusiasm, chivvying the older man along and entering into the spirit of his reconstruction. As the young Kipps, his descent into fear and uncertainty is well drawn, with the inevitable unpredictability of each new experience leaving him feeling ever more nervous and threatened. As the actor, he can’t help relishing in the story, revelling in the inventions that make the telling better. In a two-hander such as this, one requires towering performances if the whole is successfully to avoid the descent into unbelievability – and Acton and Spencer deliver.

The programme notes tell us that the setting for The Woman in Black is, ‘this theatre, about one hundred years ago’, and as one enters the recently refurbished Victorian auditorium of the Grand to see a largely empty stage with just a few bits of detritus from past productions or rehearsals – drapes, chairs, a large wicker laundry basket – one can imagine oneself back in the times of gaslit productions. Indeed, our surroundings help to set the scene for this Victorian melodrama, full as it is of sea-mists, shadowy mansions and marshes. And the use of costume and the few meagre props to tickle our imaginations is very effective – as the actor explains to Kipps, one needs only to use the audience’s imagination to provide the settings. So full marks to Michael Holt’s set design the lighting and sound designs of Kevin Sleep and Gareth Owen respectively.

Full marks, too, to the direction of Robin Herford, who has directed every production and cast since the play’s première at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and its subsequent incarnations, including the second longest running non-musical show in the West End. His sure hand and vision ensure the tension is ratcheted up scene by scene, delivering a sequence of spine-tingling and chilling climaxes, each adding further layers as the mood darkens imperceptibly.

The Woman in Black is an object lesson in what theatre does best – it takes that willing suspension of disbelief of the audience and moulds it with suggestion, using our imaginations to generate its power and leave us breathless as all the plot twists gradually unravel at the end. Yes, it may appear quaint alongside cinematic offerings of similar stories and with its at times simplistic shock tactics, but its power is undiminished, making it a good choice for a chilling night out.

Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Tristram Kenton

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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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