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Theatre Review: 'The Woman in Black'

Sophie Brown reviews the most recent stage adaptation of Susan Hill's classic ghost story 'The Woman in Black'

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Image Credit: The Woman in Black at York Theatre Royal

First published as a novel in 1982, Susan Hill’s ghost story has been told through a range of genres. Having seen the film rendition numerous times,all equally terrifying, I was eager to see how the story would transpire onstage as a live performance.

The late Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation begins in the domain of meta-theatre; a play within a play. An old Arthur Kipps attempts to read aloud a manuscript of his harrowing life story to a young actor in the hope that by sharing his experience with an audience the ghost of the Woman in Black will finally be laid to rest.

His lacklustre and dull delivery culminates in the two characters performing the story together, with the actor playing a younger Kipps, and Kipps himself taking on a narrating role and playing any other remaining characters.

However, when the rehearsals begin unexpected imaginings begin to take place and the story quite literally comes to life. Meta-theatre is executed successfully throughout the play but at times I couldn’t help but feel it slowed down the pace of the performance and took away from Kipps’ story .However,by the end of the first act the events began to properly unfold, and I became fully engaged with what was happening on stage,gripped by the horror.The play is particularly notable for having only two actors, Robert Goodale as old Arthur Kipps and Daniel Easton as the Actor.

Robert Goodale gives an honest performance presenting a broken but resolute man and smoothly transitions into playing various other roles. Daniel Easton as the Actor confidently displays a roller coaster of emotions leading the audience through various moments of comedy through to moments where they are left to cling on to their seat, frozen in fear.

Director Robin Hereford relies heavily on the audience to use their imaginations to create the world of the play, exacerbated through the minimal yet effective set design. This is demonstrated by the key moment when Kipps as Keswich takes off his hat and scarf, moves down stage and asks the audience: “And so,imagine if you would, this stage an island,this aisle a causeway running like a ribbon between the gaunt grey house and the land.” The lighting stencil of a mansion and smoke onstage are all there is to depict the marshland beyond the deceased Alice Drablow’s manor,leaving the audience’s mind to envision what might be lingering in the mist.

One of the most fear inducing moments for me is when Kipps returns to the deserted nursery that lies behind the curtain and discovers an empty rocking chair slowly creaking back and forth. Sound effects are one of the crucial ingredients used to create the chilling and eerie atmosphere from whistling winds to shrill wails and cries and barks from Spider,Kipps’ trusty companion.

Overall, the play is cleverly put together with the twist at the end being particularly surprising. Ghostly illusions are maintained right until after the performance is complete with the Woman in Black not appearing alongside the other characters for a curtain call. The play embodies the idea that less is more and emphasises how fears are often created and live purely within our imagination.Proving you don’t need grand spectacles to entrance and terrorise.

Although, I couldn’t help but feel that the success of the production lay only in a few moments that made you jump in shock.However,this show is a worthy couple of hours of entertainment in a more honest and direct style of performance. It’s a timeless play which has remained essentially unchanged since its debut over 25 years ago.

The Woman in Black is showing at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday 12 November to Saturday 16 November. Atmospheric, chilling and unexpected, this show is not for the faint of heart, but a timeless classic guaranteed to provide you with an evening of lively entertainment

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