The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black @ York Theatre Royal Review

[Originally published by On:Yorkshire Magazine:]

The fact that I am writing this alone in my house, feeling a teeny bit on edge and wanting to switch as many lights on as possible says something about the frightening success of The Woman in Black production I have just seen!

Described as “the most terrifying live theatre experience in the world” I therefore had high hopes for the play’s scare-factor. Susan Hill’s novel has been beautifully adapted by acclaimed playwright Stepehn Mallatratt, whose early plays were written whilst he worked as an actor in Alan Ayckbourn’s Scarborough Theatre Company. The descriptive language used throughout helps build the suspense and the relationships between the audience and the two characters: Arthur Kipps and The Actor.

Anyone who is familiar with horror or thriller movies knows that it is the sound and score, as well as the events that unfold, that create the eerie atmosphere you feel as you watch – and the sound and lighting in this play simply and perfectly created a feeling of unease in the theatre. The first real ‘jumpy’ moment is created from a short burst of loud noise and a flash of light in an otherwise quiet scene – the impact this 1-2 seconds of effects has on you is testament to the brilliant direction of Robin Hereford.

To help you feel unnerved the performance is staged as a play-within-a-play at the actual theatre you are sat in. It starts with Arthur Kipps seeking the assistance of an unnamed actor to help him tell the story of the worst time of his life to try and put his terror to rest. Kipps’ ineptitude to simply read a few lines out on stage has you laughing out loud after his fifth attempt to convey emotion proves as uninspiring as his first. Slowly, though, during the first few scenes he is drawn out by The Actor and eventually immerses himself in the recalling of his horror story. The humourous, light hearted beginning of the play only enhances the horror that ensues in the second half.

There are only two characters in the play (other than the ghoulish Woman in Black, who makes a few appearances) and both actors are absolutely wonderful. Malcolm James plays Arthur Kipps and I recently saw him play Rene Azaire and Captain Gray in the acclaimed Original Theatre Company production of Birdsong. He was brilliant in that play, so it was exciting to see him on stage again and he continued to impress me. James skilfully conveyed true heartache and terror during the play as Kipps and added depth to the story in his depiction of all of the supporting characters. Matt Connor’s journey as The Actor, from disbelief at how bad Kipps is at public speaking, to immersing himself in the story only to discover the terror of what happened to Kipps at Eel Marsh House, is engrossing and emotive.

The concepts of putting on plays and using one’s imagination are cleverly explored in the play-within-a-play format, with The Actor describing to Kipps how you simply need to use your imagination to believe that there is a dog, a horse and cart or even a ghostly presence on stage. The Actor also showcases the wonderful ‘recorded sound’ that had become available at that time in which the play is set and the way it enhances a performance – a nice nod to the wonderful impact of sound effects in the play.

You are transported to the remote, spooky Eel Marsh House with Kipps and The Actor to relive the ghostly events that took place. There is great use of the back half of the stage that has, up until now, been hidden by a curtain. This area acts as a graveyard, the house’s staircase and the seemingly haunted child’s bedroom – a clever way to make the most of the stage in a simple way for a two-man play. The curtain in front of the back scenery never becomes fully transparent and the slight misty view it gives you adds to the eeriness of the play.

Disembodied voices and screams, doors opening by themselves and rocking chairs with a life of their own all have you jumping in your seat. The frights are well timed and add to the storyline so always have the full effect and leave your heart racing. And if the sudden appearances of the ghoulish Woman in Black wasn’t frightening enough, the suggestion at the end of the play that Kipps hadn’t hired anyone else to play that part, and that he hadn’t seen a young woman on stage, is definitely enough to make you leave the light on a little bit longer before going to sleep when back at home.

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