This review was published in The Student Advertiser in May 2015
(Photo credit: http://www.thewomaninblack.com)
I was bewildered upon entering the theatre as to why there only sat one stool, a clothing rail with some hangers and a wicker chest in the centre of the stage. From what I knew of this horror-charged event, The Woman in Black, based on the novel by Susan Hill, is a tale of complete, supernatural massacre fuelled by the terrified yelps from the audience. However, the minimalist stage set within the newly renovated – and colourful – Theatre Royal looked more like something out of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival than a ghostly novel. At once, my spirits danced with relief.
But it didn’t last for long. At 7:30pm sharp a gentleman appeared on the stage, face gaunt and clutching a briefcase to his chest as he steadied himself on the edge of the wicker basket.“It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve,” he said, though barely audible due to there being no microphones.
And the story began.
The cast of The Woman in Black have it nailed. Sitting in the foyer, I scrambled through the programme to familiarise myself with the actress playing the role of the Woman – hoping to get some sleep that night. But she was not in the programme to be found. In fact, according to the booklet in my hand, there were merely two men in this play and no lady dressed like the colour of shadows. I felt worried – which was obviously the desired effect of the show creators. I don’t like horrors, you see.
Through sometimes complex shifts between past and present in the early 1950s, Hill’s tale follows Mr. Kipps’s (Malcolm James) journey from traumatised solicitor to stage performer with the help of an actor – originally named ‘The Actor’ (Matt Connor). Mr Kipps has held the story of the woman in black close to his heart for many years. Hoping to free himself from the burden of nightmares and make peace with God, he writes his experience on paper hoping to gain performing tips to tell it with justice. Eventually his role merges with that of The Actor’s. Instead of watching the two men in a teaching environment, they become the story – The Actor playing the role of shy Mr. Kipps and the real Mr. Kipps playing every other character he encounters. Except, of course, that unexplained cloaked figure creeping at the edge of the stage…
A young Mr. Kipps journeys outside of London to retrieve the will of the late Mrs. Drablow from her home across the water. Each day the tide lowers and grants access to the house, but only for a limited time; at 5 o’clock, the tide fully rises and engulfs the passage, leading the way to a deadly marsh land. Agreeing to stay in the house to maximise efficiency – despite warnings from locals that the house is riddled with ghosts – he endures one too many encounters with an extremely gaunt looking lady with catastrophic effects.
Through nothing but terrifying sound and lightening effects, the story’s horror is conveyed impeccably through these two gentlemen. The minimalist set leaves more to interpretation than most performances, especially given that miming is used frequently in conjunction with sound effects to create a real sense of being there without any visuals – for example, Mr Kipps’s has a trusty dog Spider whom we never see but are concerned about nonetheless. The sound of the rocking chair moving independently is engraved in my memory, as is the screech of the horse and cart as it fails to draw to a halt on more than one occasion…
This play was excellent and genuinely terrifying. Both men are flawless throughout, balancing light comedy with straight faces and the utterly unimaginable with just as much passion. The Woman in Black reinforces that the need for extravagant sets, props and costumes is only an asset when the acting or plot isn’t up to much. Equipped with a spine tingling twist revealed just as the final curtain drops, you will not be bored throughout this masterpiece.