Writer: Stephen Mallatratt, from the novel by Susan Hill
Director: Robin Herford
Assistant Director: Antony Eden
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
There’s nothing like a good, honest, spine-chilling ghost story to bring an audience together at the edges of their seats. Suspense and horror seem to lend themselves to uniting individuals as if to ward off the threat posed onstage. Such is the feeling at the West Yorkshire Playhouse at a performance of the infamous Woman in Black. There’s a compelling need to chat to unknown neighbours as if by allying against the unsettling horror everyone will be safe.
The stage version of The Woman in Black has been running at the Fortune Theatre in London for 27 years, still terrifying audiences as much as it ever did. And, throughout that time, it has been touring regularly as well. Many do return to see it again and again – the promise of being scared out of your wits is somehow addictive, and there is a different experience in every theatre, depending on its age and stage type. Director Robin Herford claims that the secret to keeping the show fresh is changing the cast every nine months, and allowing the actors the greatest possible freedom to make their roles work for them. There are only two cast members, and in the current run, these are David Acton and Matthew Spencer, both very accomplished actors with amazing stamina and technique.
The story revolves around an elderly lawyer Mr. Arthur Kipps, who feels that he has been cursed by the ghost of an emaciated woman dressed all in black. He nervously seeks out a young actor to help him tell his terrifying story in the hope that this will exorcise the threat that has been posed to himself and his family. As the tale unfolds it becomes darker, more sinister, and more terrifying. The marshes swirling in mist, the graveyard, the sparse funeral in the church, the threatening house with the sealed nursery door, the ominous rocking chair … and just why are those abandoned toys so unsettling? The atmosphere evolves, everyone holds their collective breath, and sudden noises result in involuntary shrieks. It’s all “recorded sound, Mr. Kipps, recorded sound” but it’s nonetheless real to everyone whose hair is now prickling on the back of their neck.
The set is deceptively simple, but totally adequate because the two actors create all they need to keep the audience under their spell. There’s a chair, a stool, and a wicker chest, but they easily create an office, a train, a pony and trap and more besides. Scenes are glimpsed behind a gauze and a short path runs to the front of the stage. Drab grey material forms backdrops, and copious smoke and clever lighting complete the setting.
Go along and be terrified, but remember you can’t hide behind the sofa for this one – although on this occasion, the teenager on the fourth row tried his anorak. The film of the same name (starring Daniel Radcliffe/aka Harry Potter) bears no real resemblance in terms of atmosphere, having a full cast of characters and special effects, but seemingly less tension. The stage version puts every individual in the midst of the scenario, living the horror with poor Kipps. If there is a criticism to be made of this particular production, it is that there is too much light in the auditorium during the performance. The Fortune Theatre in London is in total darkness during their show, and the suspense and shock generated in such blackness is phenomenal. In addition, sometimes moments of tension are a little rushed in Leeds, and not allowed to build to their full potential. That said, it is still pretty blooming scary, and a fitting run-up to All Hallows at this time of darkening nights and morning mists.
There is one last question to ponder on, however. If the star of the show is the Woman in Black, why is she not credited in the programme? Is it because we should never really see her? Maybe for the sake of our children, it’s best to believe just that … and to spare ourselves nightmares.
Runs until 29 October 2016 | Image: Tristram Kenton