Woman in Black – Review – York Theatre Royal

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Woman in Black – Review

York Theatre Royal, November 2014

by Emily Lawley

The fact that I write this alone in my house, feeling a teeny bit on edge and wanting to switch as many lights on as possible says something about the frightening success of The Woman in Black production I have just seen!

Described as “the most terrifying live theatre experience in the world” I therefore had high hopes for the play’s scare-factor. Susan Hill’s novel is beautifully adapted by acclaimed playwright Stephen Mallatratt. His early plays were written whilst he worked as an actor in Alan Ayckbourn’s Scarborough Theatre Company. The descriptive language used throughout helps build the suspense and the relationships between the audience and the two characters: Arthur Kipps and The Actor.

woman in black yorkshire theatreAnyone who is familiar with horror or thriller movies knows that it is the sound and score, as well as the events that unfold, that create the eerie atmosphere you feel as you watch. The sound and lighting in this play simply and perfectly creates a feeling of unease in the theatre. The first real ‘jumpy’ moment comes from a short burst of loud noise and a flash of light in an otherwise quiet scene. The impact this 1-2 seconds of effects has on you is testament to the brilliant direction of Robin Hereford.

“Discover the terror”

To unnerve the viewer the performance is a play-within-a-play at the actual theatre you are sitting in. It starts as Arthur Kipps seeks the assistance of an unnamed actor to help him tell the story of the worst time of his life. He is trying to put his terror to rest. Kipps’ ineptitude at simply reading a few lines out on stage has you laughing out loud. His fifth attempt to convey emotion proves as uninspiring as his first. Slowly, though, during the first few scenes The Actor draws him out. Eventually he immerses himself in recalling his horror story. The humorous, light-hearted beginning of the play only enhances the horror that ensues in the second half.

There are only two characters in the play (other than the ghoulish Woman in Black, who makes a few appearances). Both actors are absolutely wonderful. Malcolm James plays Arthur Kipps. I recently saw him play Rene Azaire and Captain Gray in the acclaimed Original Theatre Company production of Birdsong. He was brilliant in that play. So it was exciting to see him on stage again and he continues to impress me. James skilfully conveys true heartache and terror during the play. Kipps adds depth to the story in his depiction of all of the supporting characters. Matt Connor’s journey as The Actor, from disbelief at how bad Kipps is at public speaking, to immersing himself in the story, only to discover the terror of what happened to Kipps at Eel Marsh House, is engrossing and emotive.

“Wonderful impact of sound effects”

woman in black york theatre royalThe concepts of putting on plays and using one’s imagination are cleverly explored in the play-within-a-play format. Here, The Actor describes to Kipps how you simply need to use your imagination to believe that there is a dog, a horse and cart or even a ghostly presence on stage. The Actor also showcases the wonderful ‘recorded sound’ that has become available at the time in which the play is set. They examine the way it enhances a performance. It’s a clever nod to the wonderful impact of sound effects in the play.

You are transported to the remote, spooky Eel Marsh House with Kipps and The Actor to relive the ghostly events that took place. There is great use of the back half of the stage that has, up until now, been hidden by a curtain. This area acts as a graveyard, the house’s staircase and the seemingly haunted child’s bedroom. It’s a clever way to make the most of the stage in a simple way for a two-man play. The curtain in front of the back scenery never becomes fully transparent. The slightly misty view it offers adds to the eeriness of the play.

“Leave the light on”

Disembodied voices and screams, doors opening by themselves and rocking chairs with a life of their own. All have you jumping in your seat. They time the frights to perfection and they always add to the storyline. They have full effect and leave your heart racing. And if the sudden appearances of the ghoulish Woman in Black isn’t frightening enough, the suggestion at the end of the play that Kipps hasn’t hired anyone else to play that part, and that he hasn’t seen a young woman on stage, is definitely enough to make you leave the light on a little bit longer before going to sleep when back at home.

images: Tristram Kenton

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