The Woman in Black
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
PW Productions Ltd
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
Little did Director Robin Herford think, when he created this extremely low budget production way back in the late 'eighties, that it would still be running in London’s West End twenty seven years later, rivalling The Mousetrap for longevity and also with several provincial tours to its credit.
The story, well told, has such a hold on the imagination that, even knowing it well, it is still easy to get so lost in the telling that a feeling of fearful apprehension is not far away.
The play begins with an elderly gentleman, Arthur Kipps, on stage, manuscript in hand, recounting a period when as a young lawyer he was given the task of travelling to attend the funeral, and sort out the affairs, of a Mrs Drablow who had lived in a large forbidding house in the middle of frequently flooded marshland.
Supposedly addressing an empty auditorium, he speaks so quietly that I am straining to hear the words and wondering if the curse of mumbling in TV drama programmes has migrated to the stage.
Luckily, there is an actor on hand who is trying to coach him in his delivery, eventually deciding that, if this is a tale "which must be told", the only way it is going to get an airing he will have to play the part himself, giving Kipps the task of playing every other character involved. A bit tough on a man who didn’t want to be an actor, but it seems to work as pretty soon David Acton’s Kipps is totally convincing as coachman, solicitor, landlord etc. etc.
The first act is rather long drawn out as The Actor (Matthew Spencer) tries to improve Kipps’s rendition of the tale and persuade him to act parts instead of just reading.
There is humour between the two characters which is mildly funny and probably intended to render a sense of normality before the horrors of the story really get going, but in case we are becoming too complacent, in the middle of Kipps’s train journey to attend to his duties, there is a very unexpected thunderous bang which almost shakes the theatre and produces shrieks and screams from the audience. Not sure why it was there but it certainly had the desired effect.
Props are practically non-existent, a large wicker trunk and a few chairs being enough to convey a train carriage, solicitor’s office desk, a coach and horses and even a bedroom at an inn. In the house, a gauze curtain at the back, when judicially lit, shows a child’s bedroom which is behind a mysteriously locked door and imagination has to provide everything else—and it does!
Sound and light play a large part here, particularly sound when the noise of horses, creaking of a carriage and shrieks of those about to die echo through the theatre, most shrieks being produced when the Woman in Black makes an appearance, suddenly and with menace.
In spite of the excellent performances from the two actors carrying the play between them, and superb work by sound and light, I did feel a certain lack of atmosphere, missing the steadily intensifying fear of a malevolent spirit at work.
The Woman in Black has the final word, leaving a curse which sends shivers down the spine with the tragic twist at the end.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor