Tuesday 12th November 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
Susan Hill’s immensely popular novel is adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt and it fares well as a piece of modern theatre masquerading as a simplistic work of yesteryear.
Here, the now famous story is set up as a real-time rehearsal taking place around a hundred years ago. Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) has written up a lengthy account of a spine chilling series of events in his past. He’s working with ‘The Actor’ (Daniel Easton) who is dead set on convincing Kipps that a recitation simply won’t do; it must be a play. Not just any play either, but one framed around the greatest theatrical device of all: imagination. Through winding passages of vivid narration, basic adaptable set pieces and the immeasurable magic of suggestion, we’re taken cross country and moor to Eel Marsh House, there to have our nerves rattled by the ghostly woman in black and her tragic tale.
As a two-hander with the fleeting appearances of the actress playing the ghost (who does not appear at curtain) attached, the show covers great ground with very little. Goodale flits between various roles adjoining his central role as the older, ‘real’ Kipps. Easton makes a bold introduction as the officious and comically blunt Actor before shifting into a state of permanent nervous energy when playing young Arthur. The pair carry the action very capably and do justice to Hill’s original work, adding moments of light relief with comic asides and some nice mimed moments to compensate for lack of an actual canine cast member.
Director Robin Herford directs as an ode to the power of suggestion. All is conjured through narration or simple stage tricks. Set (Michael Holt) is suitably sparse until the additional layers of Eel Marsh House appear and the simple features are utilised in ways which The Actor takes great relish in – how ingenious that a simple object can be fashioned into an array of others! And recorded sound (Rod Mead/ Sebastian Frost) – what marvellous stage sorcery my good fellow!
The smoke machines used so generously along with Kevin Sleep’s eerie and expressive lighting designs do however allow for modern contraptions to lay their creepy mark on proceedings just as heavily as the affectionate back to basics approach. Nothing is quite so winning in the experience of watching this show than finding the entire seating area coated in a haze penetrable only by sharp lighting – to be left in the dark and the haze…waiting…
Regularly touring since 1989, the show continues to thrill audiences with its high-tension build ups, copious smokescreens and jump scares. Yet while the frighteners are well and truly locked on for Act 2, it has to be said that Act 1 feels lacking in propulsion and at times it feels laborious. The play within a play seems to function primarily as a tactic for the final reveal and in truth, the way the piece is for ever cutting between the fiction and ‘reality’ gets old quickly!
Yes, there’s an intrinsic need for rising and falling of action, of painful suspense and grateful relief, but cutting us off from the conjured story to watch the bustling men putting it all together at intervals didn’t thrill me. Though of course the show is a celebrated classic boasting the title of second longest running play in the West End – with that impressive longevity, I am clearly in the minority.
There are few staged ghost stories which genuinely set out to give us the jeepers creepers. This production certainly does not fail to fright and proves time and again that the real thrill and the most powerful stage magic lies in the anticipation. The gasps, false starts and shrieks from the audience are a testament to the clever combinations of stagecraft old and new – of keeping things simple while also allowing more modern elements to work hand in hand to keep audiences awaiting the next climax or, more often, the anti-climax. But it’s the overall structuring of the piece and the decision to repeatedly retreat from the fictional world created that left me underwhelmed more than once. It’s a production unlikely to terrify, but it sure knows how to thrill the masses.
The Woman in Black plays York Theatre Royal until November 16th 2019 and you can find tickets here.
Image credits: Tristram Kenton