Writer: Stephen Mallatrat (adapted from the novel by Susan Hill)
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Sue Dixon
The Public Reviews Rating:
Woman in Black has enjoyed long West End runs as well as the notoriety of being made into a blockbuster movie. This could have militated against a provincial theatre production. However, this stands up pretty well to the play’s wide spread reputation as one of the most effective spine-chillers. It has all the classic ingredients of a ghost story: deserted mansion, haunted graveyards and locals who stay silent and withdrawn despite the horrors they have witnessed, as well as the locked room at the end of the corridor. But those classic ingredients are also ‘spiced up’ with the unique imaginative possibilities that only a theatre production can bring. Just two actors on stage lead us through clever storytelling.
A gentle sense of dread begins to build as the junior lawyer, Arthur Kipps is played in parallel by Julian Forsyth as the older Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as “the actor” in role. The audience is taken to and fro in time via “the tale that needs to be told“; back to Eel Marsh House to put the affairs of Mrs Drablow in order. She lived and died in an eerie house on the edges of the marshes, off the bleak east coast. From the beginning Arthur has some idea of the terrifying secrets contained within the shadowed mansion but gradually more and more is revealed as awful things start to happen. It would be a crime to give away more but suffice to say this play seeks to tap into deep primal fears which had some of the audience gripped and gasping – like the viral effect of the play’s theme.
Forsyth is very good as Kipps. His hollow eyes and dulled expression speak of a man who is quietly confronting his demons; remembering the pale, yearning and desperate malevolence that is the woman in black. His apparent dullness and lack of expression play an interesting contrast to the tale he has to tell. The initially supercilious actor is played by Antony Eden in lively animated fashion. His enthusiasm sucks him into the vortex of horror, as this production by Robin Herford builds up the tension layer by layer. The second half becomes more tense, needing to build on the more sedate first half which felt a little drawn out and slow at times. A fidgety and youthful section of the audience can work to either disrupt this more powerful second half, with over the top squealing or add to the genre of horror – depending on your point of view. Each night’s performance will no doubt differ depending on the mix of audience members.
The evening is a good example of our willing suspension of disbelief, as the audience is asked to become complicit in the events unfolding on the stage and at times amongst them. The simplicity and physical limitations of the stage design means the audience has to use much more imagination than a film version demands of them – and is all the more powerful for it. A change of coat, an old wicker props basket which become new characters, desks and a train carriage all work beautifully. Simple and effective. This is an evening of old fashioned storytelling, which in an age of high tech computer generated expectations, makes for an enjoyable and delightfully atmospheric evening.
Runs until Saturday 13 October 2012