The Woman in Black

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
PW Productions
Civic Theatre, Darlington

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A strange phenomenon seems to follow The Woman In Black wherever the production goes. It is not some supernatural ghostly spectre nor an unbreakable evil curse, but that of the noisy school party. And on press night at Darlington Civic Theatre, they were out in force again.

The Woman In Black is a good, old-fashioned ghost story that sends shivers down the spine. All the essential ingredients are present and correct – there’s the death of an aged spinster, her funeral service, her estate to be arranged, a rambling old house on an island which is only passable by a causeway at low-tide, superstitious locals who will not enter into conversation about the dead woman or her home, and a young hero right in the centre of it all.

Initially, the piece is slow to gather any momentum. The story begins in a theatre where a young actor (Peter Bramhill) is teaching Arthur Kipps (Robert Demeger) the art of stagecraft, as Kipps has a desire to share, with his closest friends and family, the terrible secrets he has confined to a rather hefty manuscript.

With only two actors on stage throughout the entire performance – save for the eponymous woman in black who intermittently appears – I began to suspect that this might be a very long and dull performance. One large portion of humble pie for this reviewer, please!

It is testament to the power of the human imagination, the ingenuity of the production crew, and the unquestionable talent of two actors, that this play is able to, suddenly, grab your attention and retain it for the duration. A handful of props are used to suggest a whole range of other objects and settings, whilst Bramhill and Demeger perform as an array of differing characters. The stagecraft from all concerned is outstanding.

As events in the play begin to take a chilling turn, shrieks, screams and giggles from the girls in the school parties made it feel more like riding a fairground ghost train than watching a supernatural thriller at the theatre. When the spectral figure of the woman in black appears, the noise level was more akin to that of riders on a rollercoaster.

This, for me, was something of an irritation and distraction and I felt that any increase in anticipation or tension was evaporated, quickly and effectively, by the giggling, chattering and whispering that ensued. That said, all credit must go to Bramhill and Demeger for being able to carry on regardless.

The Woman In Black is a fine production that offers an entertaining evening at the theatre and which has a terrible, chilling twist at the end. My only plea would be that certain performances should be set aside as ‘school’s performances’ in order that we grown-ups are spared the superfluous sound effects.

Touring to Swindon, Blackpool, Swansea, Northampton, Hastings, Brighton, Belfast, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Bath, Plymouth, Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff, Norwich, Southend, Worthing and Leeds.

This production was reviewed by Peter Lathan in Newcastle and Seth Ewin in Edinburgh

Reviewer: Steve Burbridge

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