Theatre Review – The Woman in Black

February 16, 2010 | By More

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Woman in Black publicity shot – Photo by Robert Day

By Thom Dibdin
King’s Theatre

Delightfully spine-tingling and leaving a frisson of dread, the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel which tours to the King’s this week, continues to provide the necessary nervous laughs and involuntary shrieks.

Which is no mean feat, given that this production was first performed just over 21 years ago, is still showing in London’s West End and has toured to the King’s several times in the intervening years. Indeed, on a second viewing a decade after first seeing it here, its power remains.

The success of the play and the production lie on two levels. Firstly, the set-up and structure are beautifully judged. Arthur Kipps, played here with a quite believable sense of the understated by Robert Demeger, is a man with a ghostly experience to exorcise. To do so, he feels it necessary to relate his tale to his nearest and dearest.

To this end, he employs a young actor (Peter Bramhill) to help him prepare for telling the story in a theatre. As the actor struts and frets about the stage of the empty theatre, Bramhill makes him quite gung-ho about the whole project, hectoring Kipps into getting it right, and trying to turn a dry, tedious account into something gripping.

The actor takes on the role of Kipps’ younger self, while Kipps, himself, performs the surrounding characters – growing in confidence as they get deeper and deeper into the story. Meanwhile, the actor introduces different elements of staging, the tricks of sound and light, to help the story be told.

Which leaves the audience with just the one real leap of the imagination to take – that the theatre they are in is actually empty of an audience.

The second aspect of its success as a frightener, is that it is not, in fact, hugely scary. Indeed, anyone expecting the most frightening experience of their whole life is going to come away being seriously underwhelmed.

It does, however, have the power to grab the imagination. With the right level of chemistry between Kipps and the actor – and although they are individually excellent, that chemistry between Demeger and Bramhill is not quite what it might be – then the path to a lingering smoulder that stays with you long after the performance has ended, is well made.

The staging here is expertly done. The calculation behind the manipulation to being frightened is so artfully masked that a packed house perches on its seat edge, collective holding  its breath. Perhaps it is too much so:  when the release does come, the payoff is that the spell of the story itself is broken.

A tantalising production which sacrifices the true horror of planting the seeds of lingering doubts to inhabit its audience’s future nightmares, for the instant gratification of screams and squeals during the performance itself.

Run ends Saturday
Full details on the King’s theatre website

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