Tag Archives: Robin Herford

Back in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 22nd May, 2017

 

It’s unusual to have a long-running show in the West End (27 years and counting!)  that isn’t yet another musical or The Mousetrap.  The longevity of The Woman In Black is testament to its brilliance – everyone should go and see it at least once. Even when you know what’s coming, the show is still a suspenseful thrill-ride.  And now, with this touring production, you have your chance.

Ostensibly, a two-hander, Stephen Mallatratt’s masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story keeps its theatricality to the fore.  Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has recruited an actor (Matthew Spencer) to rehearse the telling of his own experiences with the eponymous apparition.  Using only basic furniture to represent every location, along with recorded sound effects and well-placed lighting, their narrative works on our imagination – and this is what makes the stage version infinitely superior to the film.  Nothing can scare us more than our own minds.  It begins with humour as the performance style is established and between scenes from Kipps’s story, the men drop in and out of the framing device – there is an ongoing story here that will also come to a chilling conclusion… Gradually, Kipps’s story takes over and the atmosphere grips, the action surprises, makes us jump.

It’s a real showcase for the two performers.  Matthew Spencer is excellent as the effusive ‘actor’ taking on the role of the younger Kipps – it is his reactions that create much of the terror – while David Acton demonstrates his range, first as the nervous, ineffectual orator Kipps and then as everyone else in the story.  Such is the skill of the two that we are made to care about a little dog, Spider, that isn’t even there!

Robin Herford’s direction pushes all the right buttons in all the right places.  Especially effective are the silences, keeping us on edge.  Michael Holt’s deceptively simple design sits well within the Grand’s ornate proscenium.  Similarly, Kevin Sleep’s straightforward lighting proves you don’t need realism to ignite the imagination.  The whole enterprise is decidedly spooky and fills us with dread.  And delight.  Scaring audiences at the theatre is difficult to pull off, with all the coughing and fidgeting and the nervous laughter, but The Woman In Black continues to put the willies up us (if that’s not a contradiction!) and long may she continue!

Go and see her before she comes to see you!!

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Give him a big hand! Matthew Spencer exploring the haunted house…

 

 

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The Ayckbourn Supremacy

RELATIVELY SPEAKING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself.  At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship.  Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month!  Gasp!  Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.

It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg.  Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive.  Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire.  Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat.  Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.

The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet.  Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos.  Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents.  Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him.  Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.

Robin Herford directs with a light touch.  The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming.  Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it.  He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder.  It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly.  We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean.  And we’re all the more fun because of it!

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Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden

 


Lady in Dread

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.

Something's gone bump...Antony Eden has a rough night

Something’s gone bump…Antony Eden has a rough night