The Woman in Black

Oct 13 2021 | By More

★★★★☆  Still so spooky

King’s Theatre: Tues 12 – Sat 16 Oct 2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Woman in Black – touring to the King’s yet again this week – retains all of its mysterious power to entrance and terrify.

It is a strange irony that the most enduring production to come out of Scarborough’s renowned Stephen Joseph Theatre came not from the pen of its longtime guiding light Alan Ayckbourn, but instead originated during his two-year sabbatical at the UK National Theatre in the 1980s.

Robert Goodale and Antony Eden (pic Tristram Kenton)

Designed as a low-budget Christmas filler, the late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic chiller, directed by Robin Herford, has of course been playing at the Fortune Theatre in London since 1989. Although any touring version misses out on the particular scares peculiar to that more claustrophobic setting, it still manages to be both gripping and genuinely frightening.

The genius of the adaptation was to make it a ‘play within a play’, with ageing Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) seeking the help of an unnamed ‘Actor’ (Antony Eden) to relate the chilling events that started at remote Eel Marsh island, and continue to haunt him many years later.

works lucidly and brilliantly

In order to tell the story, the Actor takes on the role of Kipps, with Kipps himself taking on all other roles as required. What sounds complicated and potentially tricksy works lucidly and brilliantly, with Herford’s direction as fresh as ever.

As well as being an object lesson in how to adapt a novel, the play turns the drawbacks of the original proposal – minimal props and staging, few performers – into definite strengths. One of the reasons the production has lasted so well is that it also functions as a love letter to the theatre, its power and its potential to stimulate the imagination.

Robert Goodale and Antony Eden. Pic: Tristram Kenton

While few productions so richly merit the warning of smoke and loud noises, the effects on display may seem unambitious by the standards of West End or touring productions. However, a great deal is conveyed by Kevin Sleep’s lighting, that so often obscures as much as it illuminates; or by the sound design of Sebastian Frost (based on the original by Rod Mead).

There are jump scares and moments of terror, but what is most noteworthy is how much of it is accomplished by suggestion and by real theatre-craft, rather than by any outright horrific events.

Michael Holt’s design, meanwhile, remains a masterclass in how to evoke multiple settings and provide the requisite number of spooky hidden corners.

no word is wasted

Compared to most plays in the genre, Mallatratt’s script is decidedly word-heavy, but his background as an actor, together with his experience in TV scriptwriting, means that no word is wasted. Indeed, the atmosphere of the production comes as much from what the characters say as any theatrical tricks.

There is a genuine feeling of isolation, sadness and loss, a suspicion that original plight of the Woman in Black herself is derived from self-seeking hypocrisy and self-righteous piety, and that no amount of theatrical trickery can shield us from real pain.

Antony Eden. Pic: Tristram Kenton

Eden has long been associated with the production (he played the same part in Edinburgh in 2013, and is credited as associate director) but there is no sign of him becoming jaded. His level of puppyish enthusiasm for the performing arts is just right, and the chemistry between him and the outstanding Goodale is extremely impressive.

Even at this late stage, it is best to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that Audrone Koc (someone else with a long association with the play) also deserves great praise.

Something that should by rights come across as a tired old warhorse can still move and intrigue the audience – as well as making them scream the house down. This is a testament to the show’s original creators Herford and Mallatratt, as well as to those who continue to tend it with such obvious love.

Running time 2 hours including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 12 – Saturday 16 October 2021
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

Antony Eden and Robert Goodale. Pic: Tristram Kenton

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