Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black has sparked interest for years, and this interest has only grown since its adaptation into a stage play and a film. The former has been called one of the most terrifying things on stage, and I managed to catch it on its stop at the York Theatre Royal during its new national tour.
The Woman in Black opens in a dusty theatre in the early 1950s, where an old man called Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) is being given some help from The Actor (Matt Connor) with telling the tale of his encounter with the Woman in Black of the title. He can’t quite seem to grasp it, so the Actor suggests he play a younger Kipps, while the older one perform the other roles. He reluctantly agrees, and begins to tell his story. We’re taken back several years earlier to when Kipps was a lawyer, when he was requested to go and deal with the financial matters of the late Alice Drablow on the coast of north east England. Kipps goes to the house and begins to deal with the papers left behind, but ends up being sucked into a brooding family affair that has been swirling around the house like the cold marsh mist that occasionally suffocates it and anyone in its path. And it’s not long before we learn why Kipps was so reluctant to tell us his tale…
The Woman in Black is a very engaging work. It’s sharp and jumpy in places, and the scenography of the production is what scares you the most. Everything has been carefully thought through, and it’s easy to see why this is one of the country’s favourite pieces of theatre. James and Connor are excellent as the two leads, delivering brilliant performances of two very different characters who gradually become haunted by Kipps’s tale.
The set is also beautifully designed, with careful attention to detail. Ornate chairs and abandoned toys come together to create a sense of isolation and emptiness, and contribute to the themes of the play. Mist occasionally swirls in to blind both the characters and audience alike, filling the theatre with an eerie atmosphere that ultimately draws you into both the tale and the mysterious Woman in Black herself. At times, the pace of the play grows quite slow, before being disjointed by spikes of action intended to scare you. While this draws away focus from the play sometimes, the overall lasting effect helps to make the play memorable and exciting.
Like I said earlier, it’s easy to see why The Woman in Black is one of the country’s favourite shows. It’s an excellent, engaging piece of theatre that grabs hold of you with its wonderful production elements and brilliant acting, and is certainly well worth checking out.
The Woman in Black is at playing at the York Theatre Royal until 22 November. For more information and tickets, visit the York Theatre Royal website.