The Woman in Black

Stephen Mallatratt, based on the novel by Susan Hill
PW Productions Ltd
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Matthew Spencer Credit: Tristram Kenton
Matthew Spencer and David Acton Credit: Tristram Kenton
David Acton and Matthew Spencer Credit: Tristram Kenton

The Woman in Black is truly a theatrical phenomenon. Since it was first performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough in 1987, it is estimated that over seven million people have watched the play. It has now been playing in the West End for 27 years—longer than any other non-musical production, with the exception of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap (1952).

Based on Susan Hill’s masterful ghost story from 1983, Stephen Mallatratt’s two-hander delivers both a faithful rendering of the original plot and an ingenious treatise on the nature of the theatre.

Elderly solicitor Arthur Kipps (David Acton) hires an unnamed actor (Matthew Spencer) to help him dramatise the terrifying encounter he had with the Woman in Black decades earlier. Due to Kipps’s shaky delivery, it is agreed that the actor will play the solicitor as a young man and Kipps will play all the other characters.

After the death of the reclusive widow Mrs Drablow, Young Kipps travels to the isolated seaside town of Crythin Gifford to sort through her private papers. While attending the deceased widow’s funeral, he catches his first glimpse of the mysterious Woman in Black, and from that point onwards he finds himself inextricably drawn into a story of supernatural terror.

The two performers are both excellent in their physically demanding roles. Matthew Spencer gives a charming and charismatic performance as the actor who inducts Kipps into the world of live performance. As Young Kipps, he deftly captures the character’s crumbling incredulity and increasing sense of wide-eyed terror.

David Acton demonstrates impressive versatility in a range of parts. Kipps is a weak performer at first, but Acton skillfully conveys the mounting pleasure that the character takes in acting. Each of his other roles—from the fearful Mr Jerome to the taciturn Mr Keckwick, who drives Young Kipps to Mrs Drablow’s sinister marshland home in a pony trap—is distinctive and clearly modulated.

Director Robin Herford has affectionately referred to The Woman in Black as a “cut-price stocking-filler from Scarborough”, but the production makes a virtue of its low budget. Michael Holt’s sparse set design becomes a playground for the audience’s imagination, with a wicker basket, for example, serving as a solicitor’s desk, a railway carriage and a bed amongst other things.

Kevin Sleep’s lighting design is wonderfully evocative, creating a sense of different locations and allowing the audience’s fears to multiply in the darkness. Equally impressive is Gareth Owen’s sound design, which contributes hugely to the spooky atmosphere and yields some of the night’s biggest jumps.

The Woman in Black is a delightfully slick piece of audience manipulation. A sense of foreboding grows throughout the first half and climaxes with Young Kipps spending a bumpy night in Eel Marsh House. I have seen this play performed twice and on both occasions the audience’s shrieks and giggles contributed hugely to my overall enjoyment of the piece.

A well-told ghost story—one that chills the blood and makes the hairs stand on end—is a rare and wonderful thing. Robin Herford’s production of The Woman in Black deserves its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever put on stage. It is simply superb.

Reviewer: James Ballands