Writer: Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Lauren Humphreys
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has had an enviable literary life, originally a 1983 Gothic novella, followed four years later by a stage play, a 1989 BBC TV movie adaptation, then a 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The stage incarnation, now in its 30th year, started life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Created to fill a scheduling and funding hole at Christmas, artistic director Robin Herford charged writer in residence Stephen Mallatratt with creating a work that employed a maximum of four actors and with a set and costumes costing no more than £1000.
Mallatratt took Hill’s spine-chiller with its more than a dozen characters, turned it into a two-hander and utilising the play within a play device, created one of the most successful productions in theatrical history.
As an exercise in catharsis, a now elderly Arthur Kipps relates an experience that happened to him 30 years earlier to a young actor he’s employed in preparation for a staging of the story for family and friends. The young Kipps, then a fledgeling solicitor, is sent to the remote town of Crythin Gifford to tie up the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, owner of the isolated Eel Marsh House. While there a series of inexplicable and nerve-shredding events occur that change Kipps’ life forever.
Simplicity and quality are key here, the story plays out with minimal props on a sparse, yet atmospheric set, and it is a testament to the skills of the storytellers that this grand old dame of the theatre still has the power to scare the bejeezus out of an audience thirty years on.
In the auditorium, deliberately kept on the cold side of cool by the production team, the creeping chill is both real and imagined, and under the continuing, crisp direction of Robin Herford, the quality is kept high.
Central to the production’s success, David Acton (Kipps) and Matthew Spencer (The Actor) work together like a well-oiled machine, and through their performances alone, stealthily build the insidious tension and sustain the creeping menace throughout to terrifying effect.
This is exemplary storytelling, and this production proves that there’s still room in the theatrical calendar for an old-fashioned tale brilliantly told – there’s plenty more life in the old spine-chiller yet.
Runs until 21 January 2017 | Image: Tristram Kenton