Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Woman in Black’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 27th May and Theatr Clwyd in Mold from May 30th till June 3rd
The news is that ‘The Woman in Black’ is just as good second time round…especially as a quarter of a century has elapsed since I last saw it. Its heady mix of sound, smoke, suspense and suspicion works so wonderfully well on the collective consciousness of its audience, little else in needed. And, indeed, little else is supplied. Our imaginations do the rest…which are in turn chilled when ‘recorded sound’ conjures up a past tragedy … or tickled when a few well-crafted hand gestures shape a dog before our very eyes and we giggle at our own powers of make believe.
It all started out 30 years ago when hard-pressed producer Robin Herford desperately needed a low budget Christmas show to keep the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough ticking over whilst Alan Ayckbourn was away. Writer Stephen Mallatratt was given the demanding brief to create a ghost story on a shoe string. There was enough money for two actors – but not enough money for any scenery. What he came up with was meant to be little more than a stocking filer…but his adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel has been running in the West End ever since. And it’s all down to fine acting and fertile imagination.
On the surface, it’s a play all about acting and theatre. A haunted man called Arthur Kipps wants to shed himself of a ghostly curse by ‘telling’ his story to an audience of family and friends. He knows he’s no performer; so he employs an actor on an empty stage to assist him. The helpless and over-helpful thespian assumes Kipps’s character and, I fear, rather more,
Much of the story is played out in an isolated old house, suggested by sheets and shadows, at the end of a tidal causeway, portrayed by a mere shaft of light.
The highly economical production utilises every simple trick in the theatrical book. There are classic ghostly concepts such as a locked door with no keyhole, rumblings in the attic and a restless rocking chair. The fact that other plays have borrowed these ideas since does devalue them a little but there are still plenty of shocks; some that casually pass you by and others that have your hair standing on end. The most famous one is so well done, the following lines are lost as the audience compares notes with each other about how high they’d jumped.
No actor works on the show for more than nine months (for fear of going mad themselves) and the current incumbents, David Acton and Matthew Spenser, are completely convincing. The tension is ramped up simply because they themselves seems completely convinced by each terrible turn of events. Anything less would reduce the piece to pantomime. Instead, it’s a gripping ghost story with a terrifying twist in the last line.
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre
Visit www.theatrclwyd.com for bookings & information about Theatr Clwyd.