The Woman in Black

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
PW Productions Ltd
The Lyceum, Sheffield

The Woman in Black

Stephen Mallatratt’s play, written in 1987 and continuing its run at the Fortune Theatre after 25 years, is still as fresh as paint. In the course of its long run, there have been various changes in the two-man cast, with each new actor bringing an individual interpretation to his performance.

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 much better.

Sitting in the theatre before the opening of the play, I was confronted by the least promising set imaginable: ripped, puke green theatre drapes, a wicker basket and a stool, functional lighting. Add to that, the opening moments when an actor mumbles inaudibly, head down, into a written script and cannot be persuaded to inject any kind of animation 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 (the mumbler, played by Malcolm James) who has employed a super confident actor (Matt Connor) to help him exorcise his demon, a vindictive ghost who has ruined his life.

Soon the roles are reversed and Connor, the actor, represents Arthur Kipps, the victim, as the story of the haunting unfolds. This frees Malcolm James to play all of the secondary characters with increasing confidence and great versatility as the action proceeds.

A change of hat or coat from an on-stage rack allows James to transform himself into a pathetic sniffing clerk, a terrified local solicitor, a blunt property developer, and a terse trap driver, amongst others. With a change of physical stance and a variety of accents and vocal tones, James is completely persuasive in each new manifestation.

While James gives a tour-de-force in his many roles, it is left to Connor to carry the emotional intensity of the play. As Kipps’s alter ego, he is gradually transformed from an eager, rational, fearless solicitor into the quivering wreck we met at the beginning of the play. Connor’s growing fear is convincingly conveyed and the audience is effectively drawn in to the increasing horror of his experiences. The terrifying house and the even more terrifying exterior environs are chillingly conjured up by Connor’s performance.

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’ (Robin Herford, director). Light effects, including a frightening, imagination-inducing blackout between scenes, reveal an upstage, hitherto unseen area beyond the gauze, and sound effects (particularly loud ones), give the audience a sudden start.

This is a completely engaging and entertaining theatrical experience. For the many teenagers in the audience, this was an introduction to the transformative power of theatre, the potential of the (nearly) 'Empty Space' (Peter Brook), achieved by a sophisticated playwright, sure of his craft.

Reviewer: Velda Harris