The Woman in Black

Written very much in the tradition of the suspense-filled, atmospheric ghost stories by M R James, Susan Hill’s gothic novel, The Woman in Black, has been adapted numerous times since its publication in 1983 –the 2012 Hammer Films co-production, starring Daniel Radcliffe, even inspiring a somewhat maligned sequel. However, this current touring production of the late Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 stage adaptation reminds us still of the raw power of live theatre, and how our imaginations can be shaped through excellent acting, and the effective use of sound, lighting and staging.

The narrative of The Woman in Black is in many respects sufficiently iconic to risk ridicule and satire, but this touring production – closely modelled on the ongoing London turn, is evidence that it still has something to say to us all.

Hill’s novel follows the story of junior solicitor Arthur Kipps, sent to a remote small market town to attend to the affairs of a deceased client, Mrs Alice Drablow. While sorting through her papers in her remote house, Kipps uncovers the story behind a spectral woman dressed all in black, whom he saw both at the funeral and subsequently in the house – although at considerable cost. Mallatratt’s adaptation sticks to this story, but adds an interesting “envelope”. The play begins and ends many years later, with an elderly Kipps who has decided on a public telling of what happened and has hired an unnamed Actor to help whip it into shape. Over the course of several days, we see Kipps’story ‘re-told’as they rehearse.

For a West End show, The Woman in Black does initially appear remarkably low-rent; a cast of two, and a staging consisting of a wicker dressing up box, a couple of chairs, some basic “wall” and a gauze backdrop which only later reveals a hidden room beyond. Yet this is theatre confidently playing games with the techniques of stage drama – not least by having the Actor takes on the role of Kipps while the elderly Kipps, despite protesting he has “no pretension or inclination to be a performer,”taking on all the other role. Well, except for the titular Woman in Black herself.

Matt Connor as the Actor and Malcolm James as Arthur Kipps both give assured performances, with James in particular excellent with the initial “bad acting” that Kipps provides. The two are always clearly within the moment, whether it’s the ghost story being told or the supposed-present day theatre in which their rehearsals are taking place. The change between is often done with little more than a click of the fingers – and a startling change of colour palette thanks to Kevin Sleep’s excellent lighting design. It goes without saying, of course, that the often unsettling soundscape originated by Rod Mead adds significantly to the atmosphere. And the frights.

The narrative of The Woman in Black is in many respects sufficiently iconic to risk ridicule and satire, but this touring production – closely modelled on the ongoing London turn, is evidence that it still has something to say to us all.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

“It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve…”

Susan Hill’s acclaimed ghost story comes dramatically alive in Stephen Mallatratt’s ingenious stage adaptation. Now celebrating 25 terrifying years in the West End, Robin Herford’s gripping production is a brilliantly successful study in atmosphere, illusion and controlled horror.

A lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. It all begins innocently enough, but then, as they reach further into his darkest memories, they find themselves caught up in a world of eerie marshes and moaning winds.

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