THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 14th May, 2013
Stephen Mallatratt’s splendid adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel continues to pull in the crowds in London’s West End, and this touring production shows no dip in quality. The genius of the adaptation is that it celebrates its theatricality. The central ghost story becomes a play-within-a-play. Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth) has enlisted The Actor (Antony Eden) to help him zhuzh up his storytelling techniques – he has a tale from his past he needs to get off his chest. As they rehearse, the Actor brings in more and more theatrical elements (lighting changes, recorded sounds) taking on the role of Kipps for himself. This means that Kipps has to portray all the other characters in the story and as we are led through some humorous scenes that chart Kipps’s halting progress as a budding performer, we are introduced to the conventions that will be used as the central narrative takes shape.
And so we are drawn in to the tale of a young solicitor visiting the remote estate of a deceased client. There is a town of suspicious and truculent locals and a tragic history that makes everyone shifty and jumpy.
It works brilliantly.
The atmosphere is quickly created and the tension cranks up through judicious use of silence and sudden loud noises. People scream. As more details about the story are teased out, the terror in the auditorium becomes almost palpable.
Antony Eden leads the performance as the Actor, guiding Kipps through his various roles, and playing out moments of suspense and shock with perfect timing. Julian Forsyth is endearing as the mumbling Kipps who gets into his stride with an impressive range of characterisations.
Robin Herford’s direction plays the audience like a string section. Contrasts of loud and quiet, stillness and movement, and changes of pace keep us on edge. When laughter comes, it is from nervous relief. Our imaginations are thoroughly engaged – and no one can scare you more than you can scare yourself.
I think people keep going back to The Woman in Black precisely because it delivers a theatrical experience. It puts us through the mill via tried and tested theatrical conventions and techniques. It is like surrendering yourself to a ride at a theme park. A ghost train.