The Woman in Black – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: Skylar Mabry

Writer: Susan Hill

Adaptor: Stephen Mallatratt

Director: Robin Herford

The Woman in Black is an English classic. It’s been running in London for over 30 years and has toured successfully across the world. The story is undeniably haunting. The play itself has a good few tricks up its sleeve, ready to keep the audience gasping in shock steadily throughout the two-hour production. This week at The Alexandra is no different.

This classic tale begins with a mundane, grave, older man reading dryly from a slim black notebook. It’s a bit confusing – isn’t this meant to be a scary show? – until he’s heckled from the back of the stalls by a younger gentleman, The Actor, who pleads with the older man to read his text with an ounce of enthusiasm. Slowly we begin to understand that this older man, Arthur Kipps, has employed The Actor to help him read his tale to a small audience of his friends and family. As the play goes on, these two work together to stage Kipps’ story, bringing it to life.

Susan Hill’s original novella of The Woman in Black was published in 1983. Hill was born in Scarborough, and it seems her upbringing may have influenced the content of this book – impenetrable mists, foreboding moors, and imagining the stories of the “old ladies” living in the town. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of this book has been running in the West End since 1989, and a hugely popular film was made in 2012. This story has been thrilling audiences for many years, becoming a staple of English literature education, and it’s clear to see why.

A note to prospective attendees: do not be dissuaded by the hordes of young people on school field trips. Their excitement and ability to be taken in and frightened by this story is infectious. It might even heighten your response to the shocks of this classic tale.

While both men are good performers, the real standout of this play is the stagecraft. The set design appears simplistic, yet contains many secrets. The sound design is utilised artfully to coordinate and choreograph the audience’s experience. The lighting and costume design draw on elements of expressionism and work together to create a false sense of transparency for the audience. This stagecraft blends seamlessly to make the audience believe in what surely must be unbelievable.

The Actor, played by the charismatic Mark Hawkins, takes on the role of Mr. Arthur Kipps. This leaves Mr. Kipps to assume the roles of the people he meets in his own story. Malcolm James is a joy to watch transition from a nervous, stilted, aging man to an adept character actor who gives each new person a wholly different, engaging portrayal. Hawkins and James work together well. It is clear these two have been playing these characters for a long time.

The Woman in Black is a chilling theatrical experience that reflects a style of theatre not seen as often on today’s stages. It’s a classic tale that’s well told. If your heart can handle a few shocks, The Woman in Black is worth seeing. But beware – once you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to forget it.

Runs until 10 February 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Shocking classic

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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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