The Woman in Black

Stephen Mallatratt, from Susan Hill's novella

PW Production Ltd

The Lowry

From 06 May 2013 to 11 May 2013

Review by Martin Thomasson

An ageing solicitor enlists the help of a young actor to coach him in reciting the tale of a terrifying supernatural experience he endured as a young man. As the two work together and form a bond, a shocking realisation dawns on them.

One of the more remarkable elements of the large-auditorium success of The Woman in Black is that Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella was devised for low-budget, studio theatre production. How might this, essentially intimate, telling of a ghost story fare, cast into the plush cavern of the 1700-plus seater Lyric Theatre at the Lowry?

Mallatratt’s device, of having solicitor, Arthur Kipps turn to a young actor to help him tell the tale which ‘has to be told’, compensates in wit and ingenuity for what it might be said to lack in plausibility.

Anthony Eden (as the young Actor, who also functions as director and tutor to Kipps) is all enthusiasm, ideals, gentle chiding and playful encouragement (‘we’ll make an Irving of you, yet!’). Opposite him, the audience is warmly amused by Julian Forsyth’s Kipps, apparently incapable of adding intonation or indeed volume to his mumbled narration. The Actor’s task is to adapt the older man’s lengthy and indulgent memoir into a presentable script, whilst coaxing Kipps to play the parts of the characters he met along the way.

As the play (and Kipps’s tuition) progresses, Forsyth eases into the multiple roles he is given, carrying the audience with him in appreciation of this “new found” skill. The Actor now takes on the role of the young Kipps and Eden shows admirable flexibility, switching between tutor and performer—convincing as both.

It’s a fine judgement call with a ghost story presented on stage as to how quickly and fully to ‘put the frighteners’ on your audience. Producer Peter Wilson makes a point of the appeal of The Woman in Black to ‘younger people’ (some here tonight are barely in their teens). Part of this appeal may lie in the bravely restrained pacing of the script.

Act One relies more on the human interest generated by the two characters than on scaring the spectator. We arrive at the interval having felt more tickling of the ribs than tingling of the spine, with just an occasional teaser for the supernatural thrills that might lie ahead.

Act Two sees the pace and the adrenalin count increasing and, whilst there is no sign of audience members cowering behind their seats, there is a fair spattering of screams and of the kind of nervous laughter that often accompanies the more edgy fairground rides.

True to its genesis, this production uses clever lighting, nicely judged sound effects and, of course, the audience’s imagination in preference to hi-tech SFX, and is all the better for it. Kevin Sleep must take a bow here for his lighting design.

This is a largely successful production of a skillfully crafted piece, though one cannot help but wonder how much more chilling it would be in a more intimate setting. Robin Herford’s direction is for the most part assured and light of touch, although the dreadful (as in ‘filling one with dread’) denouement is rather underplayed and reaches the audience with barely sufficient force to cause the necessary chill.

Buy a ticket, allow yourself to be lulled by the gentle fun of Act One and then brace yourself for what lies behind the door that young Arthur Kipps cannot (at first) open, for the things that go bump in the night and, of course, for the woman in black, herself.