The Woman in Black

Stephen Mallatratt
PW Productions
Sheffield Lyceum
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Stephen Mallatratt’s play, written in 1987, continues its run at the Fortune Theatre after 27 years. Director Robin Herford has been with the play since its first performance at the Stephen Joseph Memorial Theatre in Scarborough and tells us in a programme note that he "changes the cast every six months and rehearses with a new group of actors… to keep the production fresh". It is a touring version of the same production which reaches Sheffield this week.

The secret of the play’s success and its popularity over so many years lies in Mallatratt’s brilliant, witty, economical and theatrically informed adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel. Mallatratt understands, like Shakespeare and (much later) Peter Brook, that effective theatre does not need complicated trappings to stimulate the audience’s imagination, but that the elements of theatre, notably language, action, minimal and adaptable staging, with the addition of simple light and sound effects, will do the job as well if not better.

At the beginning of the play, the audience is confronted by the least promising set imaginable: ripped theatre drapes, a wicker basket, a couple of chairs and functional lighting. Add to that an actor who can’t act and cannot be persuaded to inject any kind of animation or projection into his reading. Mallatratt is having fun with the audience.

His ‘conceit’ at the beginning of the play is to present the audience with a broken man who mumbles inaudibly into a script. The mumbler played by Robert Goodale has employed a super confident actor (Daniel Easton) to help him exorcise his demon, a vindictive ghost who has ruined his life.

Soon the roles are reversed and Easton, the actor, represents Arthur Kipps, the victim, as the story of the haunting unfolds. This frees Goodale to play all of the secondary characters as the action proceeds. A change of hat or coat from an on-stage rack allows Goodale to transform himself into a pathetic sniffing clerk, a terrified local solicitor, a blunt property developer, and a terse trap driver, and others.

The initially ‘unpromising’ set is capable of all sorts of transformations. The humble wicker basket becomes ‘a desk, a railway carriage, an altar, a pony and trap, a bed in seconds’.

I was enormously enthusiastic about the play and the production when I saw it five years ago at The Lyceum. But take away the trappings of theatre and the performances of the actors and the slickness of the stage effects are crucial.

The inaudibility of Goodale as Arthur Kipps in the early stages of the play is actual not a stage convention and makes the unfolding of the plot difficult to follow, especially from the back of the theatre. This becomes tedious.

The effects are not as sharp as they were in the earlier production so the surprise elements are not as effective. While it is remarkable that this show has had such a long life, this particular version seems tired and lacking in verve.

Reviewer: Velda Harris