Experts will doubtlessly tell you how the manipulation of gravity and centrifugal force is what generates the excitement of theme-park rides but that probably doesn’t matter to visitors screaming their heads off as they do another loop. Similarly, The Woman In Black is very much a tried-and-tested rollercoaster of theatrical thrills – and likewise, how it gets to those giddy moments of the audience jumping out of their seats doesn’t really matter. You don’t come for the the dramaturgy – you come for the suspense, the tension and the frights!
The play came to be in a rather unlikely way. In December 1987, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough had a pantomime in their main house, but Robin Herford, who was running the theatre in the absence of Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn, wanted a contrasting show to run alongside. Stephen Mallatratt had picked up Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black at the airport, read it on holiday and thought it would be a good one to adapt. With so few actors and props, the show made its low-budget, three-week debut in the bar of that Scarborough theatre. Who could have guessed then that The Woman In Black would cast such a long shadow with a West End run that would last for 33 years and play for 13,232 performances?
The story is a simple one: Arthur Kipps, an elderly lawyer, has consulted a theatrical actor for help performing a hefty manuscript that he has written. “I wish this tale of mine to be told so I may sleep without nightmares” he tells the young actor. With The Actor playing the younger Kipps and the older man playing the characters he met on his journey, the story they begin to perform sees Kipps as a young solicitor being sent to the isolated and eerie Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of a recently-deceased client, Alice Drablow. As Arthur begins to sort through the myriad of papers in the shadowy house, he begins to suspect he is not alone…
The plot may be as creaky as the floorboards of Eel Marsh House, but the telling of it is a triumph. Malcolm James offers a wonderful array of characters and accents, but most effectively conveys the older Kipps’ hollowed sense of loss. Mark Hawkins, who plays The Actor with some considerable skill, earns a deservedly rapturous reception at Richmond Theatre, a venue where he had worked for ten years as a Box Office Sales Assistant. He is equally adept at the thespian theatrical swagger at the beginning and the terrifying disintegration of where The Actor’s performance begins and ends as the story unfolds.
But it’s how the production transforms everyday objects and sounds where The Woman In Black has its power. When a wicker basket is transformed into an imaginary pony and trap, it relies on the power of theatrical imagination to believe in it but it’s this same suspending your disbelief that leaves an open door to all the horrors and shocks the show has lined up for you.
Because The Woman In Black backloads the majority of the frights to the second half, the first act can feel a bit exposition-heavy and slightly too talky. Of course like the best rollercoaster designers, adapter Mallatratt is creating a false sense of security and slowly building up the suspense. The fact that “nothing” is happening only lends to the agonising expectation of “something” happening. When the scares start, they come thick and fast and the tension is relentless. Lighting designer Kevin Sleep, Sound Designer Sebastian Frost and Designer Michael Holt all do sterling work in making sure that we fear every noise and every shadow. The openness of the set means the boundary between stage and audience is not so clearly defined. When The Actor makes his entrance from the back of the auditorium at the beginning of the play, we know that we no longer have the protection of the fourth wall.
And as we sit in the dark, it’s just as conceivable that the Woman in Black may reach out for us as Arthur Kipps…do you dare to look round?
The Woman In Black remains the gold standard by which theatrical scare rides are judged – ★★★★ 4 stars