Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Woman in Black

Susan Hill, in an adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt
PW productions Ltd.
Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford and touring
(2008)

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This thriller has been playing for so many years, opening in Scarborough in 1987 and transferring to London in 1989 where it has remained ever since, that you would expect by now it would have lost its ability to thrill and shock, but this is my third time and it can still send chills down my spine.

It begins innocuously enough with one Arthur Kipps on stage trying to read out his story – a terrible tale which must be told, but this man is no actor and his flat, unemotional voice conveys nothing of the tension and suspense essential in a good ghost story. We’re beginning to suspect a boring evening, when from the back of the auditorium a young and enthusiastic actor rushes down to the stage intent on coaching him in stagecraft, presentation and projection, and from here the repetition of the first few lines – necessary in rehearsal – become a bit tedious, with the audience wondering when the play would really get going. Get going it does – especially in act two when the mysterious woman in black makes her appearance – the slow start emphasising the rising apprehension as the play progresses.

The performers swap roles, with the young actor (Ben Porter) becoming the younger version of Kipps, while the elder Kipps (Sean Baker) shows his true talent covering almost all the other characters – coach driver, innkeeper etc .nearly all with a Yorkshire accent as the narrative takes place in a remote area of this county, where the sea frets cause the mists to come swirling in across the moors – and so they do, engulfing not only the stage but the whole auditorium, giving the audience a first hand impression of the unease and almost panic when familiar objects are lost to view.

It takes some superb acting to make a play like this work. As the Actor says at the beginning, the performers have to make the audience use their imaginations to picture the scene, and as the only props on stage are a basket chest, a couple of chairs and a coat rail, imagination is necessary to transform these into a coach, a desk, a pony and trap, a bed, or part of a railway carriage, but whereas in a film this would appear ridiculous, here it all seems perfectly natural.

A mysteriously locked room, a chair which rocks in the night and a treacherous causeway from the haunted house to the shore – all ingredients for a good ghost story, but it takes the superb adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt, together with adroit direction by Robin Herford, to bring it to terrifying life. Excellent lighting and sound (Kevin Sleep and Rod Mead) are integral and essential elements too, increasing the apprehension and suspense.

Most surprising was the large number of young people in the audience. For a generation used to realistic horror on film, this style of presentation, where imagination can take you beyond the visual, seemingly brings them in to scream in fright and enjoy the experience. Interesting – and they congregated in groups afterward to discuss the play – always a sign of a successful enjoyable production.

Touring to Bath, Stoke, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Worthing, Billingham, and Aberdeen.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor