The Woman in Black | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 07 March ’17
By Kaity Hall
We’re all familiar with ghost stories. Whether it’s through wild childhood tales or a penchant for horror movies; stories of dark figures and the paranormal have a unique way of captivating us. And that’s just what you can expect in The Woman in Black.
Adapted by the late Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 novella, The Woman in Black is by no means a new production. In fact, has been running in the West End for twenty seven years.
In twenty seven years our grim fascination with ghost stories hasn’t been dampened, that much is clear from the palpable excitement in Belfast’s Grand Opera House on The Woman in Black‘s opening night.
A sparse stage set-up consisting of worn drapes, a large basket in the centre, a couple of wooden stools and a coat rack sets the scene for a production heavily reliant on the power of the audience’s imagination.
Opening with the suited character of Arthur Kipps (David Acton) nervously reciting the beginning of his story from a book, the audience learns not to become too comfortable when the second character, The Actor (Matthew Spencer) unexpectedly moves towards the stage from the back of the theatre after watching the recital too. This alarming invasion into the realms of the audience serves as a precursor for what follows; a production filled with unexpected moments that make you jump.
Rehearsing for a performance of Kipps very own, real life, ghost story, he wishes to make peace with the terror that befell him years ago. As the two characters rehearse their parts, the play assumes the format of a play-within-a-play. The audience are left wondering and imagining what these frightening events are that have left Kipps with such a nervous disposition.
The clever play-within-a-play format gives the audience a keen insight into the characters concerned in Kipps’ story but also reminds us throughout of the ways in which Kipps’ story affects him emotionally. It gives a layer of reality to the ghost story, it isn’t simply fiction for the character of Kipps.
As the two main characters rehearse their parts together, the story unfolds for the audience. Kipps was a solicitor who was sent off to the distant town of Crythin Gifford in the English countryside to attend the funeral and arrange the affairs of the late Alice Drablow. Shrouded in mystery, the residents of the town are all unwilling to talk in any detail about Mrs Drablow.
Matthew Spencer plays both The Actor and ‘The Actor’ acting the part of Kipps while Acton moves with impressive ease through performances of the additional characters in the story. These include such the brusque and business-like boss of Kipps, Mr Bentley, the nervous land agent Mr Jerome, the rough country mannerisms of the driver, Keckwick, and the reserved but friendly landowner, Sam Daily.
David Acton as Kipps gives a very complex and multi-faceted performance in a play that skips between contained layers of rehearsal and reality. With a limited stage set up and cast, the story hinges on his superb performance of these additional characters.
With the classic, genre defining build-up of the outsider arriving in a strange town where strange occurrences happen and the residents refuse to acknowledge it, the audience are very familiar the Gothic tropes at play.
However, this does not mean The Woman in Black feels aged; rather it demonstrates the continual enjoyment that is had in ghost stories.
The dark and frightening element to the story is skilfully accentuated through superb, ever-changing lighting that expertly sets the mood.
Perhaps the most frightening scene is at the funeral service at the Church. The stage is almost entirely in darkness, light provided only by the large white cross projected on the drapes. This is the first moment the audience sees the silent figure of the woman in black flitting by. Although there are indeed jumpy moments in the rest of the play, the sound effects of only the sermon and what is essentially a shadow moving by makes this scene very unsettling.
Warm and atmospheric, but slightly eerie spotlight falls on The Actor as Kipps in various scenes, leaving the rest of the stage in darkness. Shadows are expertly made use of and almost assume presences of their own due to their prominence.
Kipps writing a letter to his fiance, reading through Mrs Drablow’s letters and nervously walking through Mrs Drablow’s unsettling, lonely house with a candle in hand – all these scenes cast large shadows on the stage which simply add to the anticipation of something dreadful.
The Woman in Black leaves a lot to the audience’s imagination through a small cast and stage set up but this works wonderfully in a play driven by the anticipation of horror and dreadful insights into the unknown.
The audience are able to imagine with ease, the marshes outside Drablow’s house, the horse and cart which brings Kipps to the house and most importantly the interior of Drablow’s house. The clever use of a veil signifies Kipps entering different rooms in the house or going outside into a graveyard.
The Woman in Black draws on the audience’s previous familiarity with ghost stories and uses it to its advantage. With only two characters (plus the woman in black) and very few props or stage edits, a real ghost story is brought to life fantastically on stage through sheer skill.