The Woman In Black – Review

The Woman In Black. All images Tristram Kenton.
The Woman In Black. All images Tristram Kenton.

The Woman In Black has become a rite of passage for many teenagers who study Susan Hill’s spine-tingling horror story as a set text at school. Do you dare to be scared or will the nightmarish stage production, now celebrating 30 years haunting theatres near you, be the death of you? Do you believe in ghosts?

Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation is terrifying. The latest national tour arrived at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre last night and it was right on the money. I bet there were a few nightmares in homes around the Bucks market town following the opening night.

“All I wish is that this story is told,” pleads former solicitor, Arthur Kipps. “It is a story of haunting and evil!” he exclaims.

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And he’s right. It’s impossibly hard to create a horror story on stage because you’re constrained by the cold reality facing you. There’s no room for fancy special effects that can be found on the magic of the screen.

But, gosh, this isn’t half good. The production stars just two men – David Acton as Kipps and Matthew Spencer as “The Actor”…..and then there is the eponymous “Woman in Black” of the title who haunts the production but is never credited.

But, and I hope the cast don’t mind me saying, the real stars are Ron Mead’s sound design, Kevin Sleep’s stark and shadowing lighting, and Robin Herford’s long-established and outstanding direction, that conjures up a nightmare out of nothing more than a few props, his two leading men, and the audience’s imagination.

Herford cleverly lulled his theatre-goers into a false sense of security by pitching the opening scenes as a dark comedy. “Ha!” you think. “This isn’t scary at all. What’s all the fuss?”

But it isn’t long before a sea fret fills the stage with an eerie, dense fog, the air turns chilly and theatre-goers are pitched onto a roller-coaster ride of unimaginable terror.

Arthur Kipps has written a ghost story, a true account of something which he endured as a young man, and he wants professional help in performing the piece for his family.

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He turns to an actor and together, after a halting start, the pair re-imagine the tale with the actor playing Kipps and the lawyer playing the peripheral characters.

By the second act the audience is on the edge of its seat. And, when she appears and spooky goings on take place in the creepy Eel Marsh House, well..

Spencer is jolly good at playing the cynic. As The Actor he views the story simply as a performance piece which he hopes a passing director may get to see. He’s cheerful, enthusiastic, and professional, correcting the reserved Mr Kipps, encouraging him and supporting his efforts.

We first see David Acton’s grieving and desperate Kipps as he walks hesitantly onto the stage of an “empty” theatre where the actor is working.

He tries reading his story in a small, timid voice, a voice too frightened to be courageous or cavalier. No, no, says a voice from the stalls. “The Actor” strides onto the stage to take control, and the tale begins.

Shadows play on the walls, sounds echo around the theatre, horrible screams pierce the quiet. An audience, collectively, jump from their seats.

My only criticism of this excellent production is the decision to ruin the suspense by showing too much of the “Woman in Black.”

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Her momentary appearances on stage do their job scaring the bejesus out of the impressionable theatre crowd – until the final scenes when the light plays on her for way too long and everyone can see her face.

She’s far more effective when only spotted in silhouette.

That aside the old girl is wearing well. Thirty years frightening millions of theatre-goers around the world and she can still give you goosebumps. What a trouper.

The Woman In Black runs at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre until Saturday and then takes a break until the New Year.

2017 tour dates

Southend Palace, 9–14 Jan
Glasgow King’s Theatre, 17–21 Jan
Cheltenham Everyman, 23–28 Jan
Leicester Curve, 30 Jan–4 Feb
Hereford Courtyard, 6–11 Feb
Aberdeen Performing Arts, 14–18 Feb
Nottingham Theatre Royal, 20-25 Feb
Torquay Princess Theatre, 28 Feb-4 Mar
Belfast Grand Opera House, 7-11 Mar
Dublin Gaiety Theatre, 13–18 Mar
Salford Lowry, 20–25 Mar
Portsmouth New Theatre Royal, 27 Mar–1 Apr
Bromley Churchill Theatre, 3–8 Apr
Woking New Victoria, 11–15 Apr
Norwich Theatre Royal, 18–22 Apr
Newcastle Theatre Royal, 24–29 Apr
Inverness Eden Court, 1–6 May
Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, 22–27 May.

Review Rating
  • The Woman In Black
4

Summary

Do you believe in ghosts? Susan Hill’s haunted house story, The Woman In Black, that has been skilfully adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, is terrifying. A tale of unimaginable horror masterfully presented

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