The Woman in Black

Adapted by Stephen Mallatrat from the novel by Susan Hill
PW Productions Ltd
The Lowry

Malcolm James as Arthur Kipps and Matt Connor as The Actor Credit: Tristram Kenton

It's quite some years since I last saw this production on tour—a play that has clocked up more than a quarter of a century in the West End, which is remarkable for a two-hander—and so I felt I was certainly due a return visit to see whether it was as good as I remember it being.

The story at the heart of the play is a very simple tale that uses many of the tropes of the Victorian ghost story, the sort that M R James made a career out of writing. But what makes this work so well for the stage is Stephen Mallatratt's brilliantly clever adaptation.

While many literary adaptations are weighed down with excessive narration to fill in the bits of the story that the playwright couldn't tell more theatrically, Mallatratt finds a way of theatrically justifying the narration, and for using just two actors to portray a whole townful of people, and he does it with plenty of wit and heart.

It begins with a lesson, as Arthur Kipps comes to a man known only as The Actor to ask for help in telling his story, a story that "must be told" to his family and friends as it has haunted him for years. The Actor eventually steps in to become the younger Arthur Kipps and the real Kipps, after a few acting lessons, plays all of the other characters in the story.

When he was much younger, Kipps was a solicitor who was sent to deal with the estate of an old woman who had lived alone for decades in a house across the marshes that was inaccessible for much of the time. The woman was now dead, but it seems there is something inhabiting that old house, and the people of the town won't tell him what it is.

Every so often, the play switches between the acting lesson and the story that the actors are telling, which is very effective, but then the two parts of the story come together quite horrifically at the very end.

The adaptation, though, is only part of the success of this show. Robin Herford's production is beautifully paced as a play, but also has some nice little tricks to really set the nerves on edge, aided by some very clever design of set by Michael Holt, lighting by Kevin Sleep and sound by Rod Mead. The silences really draw you in before something visual or aural makes you jump out of your seat.

Malcolm James as Kipps and Matt Connor as The Actor carry the two-hour tale perfectly with great performances from both.

It's hard to do a ghost story on stage that is a real play rather than a series of shocks, but this clever staging brings those sorts of tricks into some very good storytelling to make a very entertaining night at the theatre that still puts the wind up spectators of all ages, as the audience on press night showed.

Reviewer: David Chadderton