The Woman in Black

Monday 16th February 2015

The Woman in Black

Curve – 16th to 21st February

PW Productions presents
Malcolm James and Matt Connor
Directed by Robin Herford
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt form the novel by Susan Hill

Our rating: ****

It was shocking!  Well, I knew that might be an ambiguous comment but I did mean it in the sense providing shocks. This tense thriller provided shocks throughout its two scenes and the acting was just as fine as you would expect it to be from the two well-experienced actors who were on the stage.  Just two. Malcolm James played Arthur Kipps and the Actor was played by Matt Connor.

Malcolm James and Matt Connor. Photo Tristram Kenton.
Malcolm James and Matt Connor.
Photo Tristram Kenton.

The Woman in Black is a ghost story. In that respect it shares something in common with Hamlet, Macbeth, Blythe Spirit, The Ghost Train and Christmas Carol. Today’s audiences do not have the same attitude to ghosts as the audience in Shakespeare’s day; few people these days actually believe that ghosts exist. So, a play about a woman who is dead and who appears in the play only momentarily,  would appear not to work for a modern audience.  Well, the success of The Woman in Black stems from what the ghost does. It’s a genre that has stood the test of time, from Shakespeare through Wilde to Ibsen and then on to The Phantom of the Opera,  and, dare we say,  The Blair Witch Project, audiences have not lost their predilection for the supernatural. The role of the ghost is to add tension to the plot and to provide shocks to a story that is dark and foreboding.

On one level The Woman in Black is a play about acting.   It’s play-within-a-play approach to telling the story works in a way that a straightforward enactment of the plot would probably not. The play was first performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1987. It was produced on a skimpy budget:  only two actors and minimal props. The current touring production has kept this feature; the only props we see all night are a chair, a wicker basket and a rack of clothes. The rest of the set is kept deliberately simple: a door, a gauze screen and backdrop projections to suggest settings rather than to recreate them. So, when we are in a church, a cross is projected on to the gauze screen and the actors shuffle sideways into imaginary pews.  Most of the time this works well;  except that when we come to the graveyard scene; instead of gravestones we see only objects draped in white cloths. For me that didn’t work (but it was a feature of the original production.)

It would be easy to say that the audience is invited to suspend disbelief; I would prefer to say that much of the tension of the theme comes from what is suggested more than from what is actually seen or takes place. Certain scenes are conjured through the magic of suggestion contained in the dialogue. The two men evoke a variety of roles by donning different hats and coats; there are a large number of characters in the storyline but they have all to be played by the same two actors on the stage.

The plot is both simple and complicated. A man called Arthur Kipps invites an actor to help him tell a story – which he has written. The play comes from acting the story. Many years earlier Kipps is sent to a house to wind up the affairs of a dead woman. The (then) young lawyer’s clerk has to spend a couple of days in the old, deserted, house gathering together her papers. As he works through the piles of dusty old documents, a series of dreadful secrets are unearthed. The dead woman had a child who died when only five. Since then, the appearance of the ghost of the old woman has coincided with the death of children in the village.

Even though they were watching a thriller, tonight’s audience laughed quite a few times. Sometimes they were laughing with the play;  sometimes at it. Nothing unusual about that – drama often uses humour to build tension. I think some of the laughter was not always about ‘funny ha ha’ but reactions to seemingly odd happenings on the stage.  When The Actor wanted to change the lighting on the stage, he snapped his fingers and the lighting engineer changed the colouration of the floods. Polite laughter. The play is frequently peppered with shocks and surprises; things that make you jump. At first this worked;  but as the play wore on,  you were half expecting a loud bang or the ghost to suddenly jump out and that sense of expectancy dulled the impact of the shock when it happened.  It worked best when you really were not expecting anything to happen. Some of these occurrences were like pantomime moments; at one point the ghost jumps out from behind the gauze screen and goes “booo”; OK that was momentarily scary but rather panto-esq in the way it happened. Some scenes contained Hammer House of Horror moments. The eeriness of the theme was delivered more by the dialogue and by events that were suggested and these worked more effectively than the sometimes crude shock tactics that were also employed. The technical department did a good job of making the bangs work well. The play is peppered with theatrical tricks:  a locked door that suddenly swings open, an empty rocking chair that appears to rock of its own accord, a music box that plays itself… well known ghostly cliches. On more than one occasion the actors enter the auditorium from the back of the stalls; even the ghost first appears in this way. Bear in mind that the first production of the play took place in the theatre bar rather than in the main auditorium.

The plot unravels as the two men act their way through the story, which Kipps is planning to tell at a family gathering and The Actor’s job is to get him to add some life into the narration, rather than the dull monotonous delivery with which he starts the reading. As The Actor says to Kipps, if you were to act the whole story it would take five hours to complete. Gradually, but reluctantly, Kipps begins to trust The Actor’s way of doing things. The play within a play, is the two of them rehearsing Kipp’s story-reading at the proposed family gathering. A clever way of telling a story, I thought. Act one was a bit slow off the starting blocks but Act two cantered along at brisk enough pace; with shocks taking place throughout both scenes and the gradually unfolding of the story there was enough going on to keep you on the edge of your seat and fairly spell-bound. The ending – the denouement – is surprising. It is a twist that few people would have seen coming.  I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is but it is an ending that works: it is as shocking as it is surprising.  At times it was too much like a fairground Ghost Train pastiche but overall the play was a cleverly constructed drama that used the magic of acting to conjure its effects through words and action and in that respect it was an admirable piece of theatre.

Things to know about The Woman in Black:

  • The play was made into a film in 2012 starring Daniel Radcliffe and a sequel has come out recently called The Woman in Black 2 – Angel of Death.
  • The play is included in the GCSE English Literature curriculum. The play was first performed in Scarborough; the theatrical home of Alan Ayckbourn.
  • It was one of the longest-running non-musical plays in London’s West End.
  • Stephen Mallatratt (the person who adapted the play from Susan Hill’s book) also worked on Coronation Street, The Forsyte Saga and Brideshead Revisited.

See the website for The Woman In Black, current touring production

Other theatre reviews on Arts in Leicester magazine

Abigail’s Party
The History Boys from 2011