Writer: Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Ben Miller-Jarvest
A black stage. A single candle, trembling in an actor’s hand. Screams echoed through the theatre and not all of them came from the stage. If the cold shiver down the spine isn’t a tip-off, The Woman In Black has arrived in town.
Our setting is an empty theatre, to which Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor, has come in order that a young actor may coach him to recite, and thereby exorcise from his mind, the horrible events that he experienced many years ago. Quickly, they discover that this charade works better if they switch roles, with the actor assuming the part of the young Kipps, and Kipps himself portraying everyone that he interacted with during his horrifying and tragic encounter with the Woman in Black.
The acting from both David Acton as Kipps and Matthew Spencer as the Actor is excellent. Acton has more to do at first, portraying the hesitant, terrified old man and he shows excellently the transition as Kipps’ confidence increases. His very limited prowess as an actor then develops, until he is playing a whole range of distinct characters with aplomb. Spencer, meanwhile, initially only has to play the likeable if cocksure actor. Gradually, however, he becomes the epicentre of the harrowing tale, conveying well the young Kipps’ mix of courage and horror.
However, in Robin Herford’s production, designed by Michael Holt, it is the technical aspects, the set, the lighting and the sound, which are the real stars. The actor proposes to the unsure Kipps that they tell the story using only the couple of chairs and the large hamper lying about on the bare stage before the plain cloth backdrop, and so they do, the hamper serving as desk, bed, carriage and more throughout the night. Gradually, as the young Kipps explores deeper into the unsettling Eel Marsh House, the audience too is allowed deeper onto the stage, by means of a light shining through the gauze back cloth, making it transparent and revealing what lurks behind. When combined with lighting at once basic and innovative, including simply turning the lights off completely and plunging the theatre into darkness, lit only by a candle, the effect is chilling, and this reviewer’s heart was in his mouth as he waited to see what that candle would illuminate, that hadn’t been there before.
The other real star here is Stephen Mallatratt with his superb adaptation of Susan Hill’s haunting novel. The Actor and the retelling of Kipps’ experience in the theatre are both his innovation, which means that the audience are introduced gently to the show’s conceit, and the humour of the by-play between the two acts as a countermeasure to what unfolds. This contrast means that when the tension does begin to climb, it has more effect as we have begun in a place of warmth and friendship. To his credit as a director, Herford understands the power of leaving an audience in silence, and often does so, letting instances of people sleeping peacefully draw out far longer than is comfortable for the spectators watching in suspense.
The Woman in Black has become a theatre legend, and rightly so. If the idea of a ghost story, told well and given proper time for the tension to build unbearably appeals to you, then this show is unmissable. But be warned: if you do see it, be prepared to scream.
Runs until 26 November 2016, then continues to tour | Image: Tristram Kenton