Review by Rosie Holmes
The Woman in Black recently ended its incredible 33 year run at the Fortune Theatre in London’s West End, and now embarks on a UK tour, stopping at the beautiful Richmond Theatre. Having been seen by 7 million people worldwide, I was keen to see if the play would be as frighteningly good as its history suggests.
Adapted for stage from Susan Hill’s book, Stephen Mallatratt creates a play within a play, as lawyer Arthur Kipps, obsessed with a curse he believes has been cast over himself and his family, enlists the help of a young actor to help him tell his story and exorcise the fear his previous ghostly experiences have caused him. Together Kipps and the young actor tell the story of a young Kipps’ visit to the deceased Alice Drablow’s isolated house to sort her affairs. As he spends more time in the town and at the house, he begins to see unsettling apparitions and observes an uneasy atmosphere amongst the locals at the mere mention of Drablow’s Eel Marsh House.
The Woman in Black is, for all intents and purposes, a classic ghost story, featuring many traditional tropes; a lonely woman in mourning, a deserted house. So why then has it proved so popular over the years (note, the lady in front of me in the audience told me this was her sixth time seeing the show!) The answer is in the staging and the suspense the show builds throughout. Blackouts occur frequently through the first half, each time with huge anticipation as the audience consistently expect a jump scare, that actually only ever comes much later on, once the suspense has reached its fever pitch. Sound, or should I say silence, is used expertly, creating a mounting level of discomfort throughout the audience. Though, the first half is perhaps slightly slow-paced and lacking in action, the pay-off in the suspense it creates for the action-packed second half is well worth the wait.
In fact, The Woman in Black uses its audience wonderfully, perhaps more complicit than explicitly breaking the fourth wall, but it’s the audiences palpable fear and expectations of what’s to come that the piece plays on so expertly to create anticipation among the audience. In fact, the play is very popular for school trips, with this performance attended by GCSE drama students, who did a great job of further adding to the tension themselves, jumping at almost every piece of action, and adding to the jittery atmosphere.
A two-hander (or three...?) The Woman in Black features just two cast members; Malcom James as Mr Kipps and Mark Hawkins as ‘The Actor’. With just the two actors and the framing device of a play within a play, both are required to play more than one character, deftly showing their talent for character acting and a knack for accents. Both are brilliantly comic, creating a light heartedness to much of the show, that offers some unexpected, but welcome lightness in between my heart palpitations.
Malcolm James is wonderful as the older Mr Kipps, haunted by his past, as well as playing those terrified by ghostly goings on in the abandoned Eel Marsh House. He has a particularly wonderful knack for seemingly making eye contact with every member of the audience, drawing us into his world and creating an intimate atmosphere that only makes the spookiness of the piece more visceral. Mark Hawkins is ‘The Actor’ and, rather excitingly, prior to the role had worked in the box office at the Richmond Theatre and so quite triumphantly returns in this role, which he performs remarkably. Like his co-star he is thoroughly engaging, becoming more and more unsettled throughout the piece as the hauntings he experiences become more terrifying.
I don’t think there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t expecting or even hoping to be spooked when watching this show. Sound design by Sebastian Frost and visual design by Ishbel work together to create an intimate and scary setting for the piece. Set for the most part in an abandoned theatre, the stage is sparse, save for a few props, but clever design allows for many secrets to be revealed, adding to the audience’s unease. Sound becomes increasingly loud and erratic as the tension reaches its climax, and simple yet effective shadows as back drops only add to the spooky nature of the show.
The Woman in Black has proven to be extremely popular amongst audiences for over 33 years now and having seen the show for the first time myself, it is clear to see why. It’s a traditional ghost story that, through the use of tremendous, yet simple, visual and lighting design creates an overwhelmingly physical experience for audience members. It was a delight seeing so many young audience members shrieking with both fear and delight, and frankly, I can see why this show has enjoyed a rich history of success.
The Woman in Black is currently playing at Richmond Theatre until, Saturday 18th November, before it continues on its UK tour, tickets and more information here - The Woman in Black - Tour
Photos by Mark Douet
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