White dust sheets, impenetrable mists and locked doors that inexplicably open all add up to a good old-fashioned, gothic ghost story. The Woman in Black, making a fleeting appearance at Curve from 27 May to 1 June during its UK tour was – like the typical Bank Holiday weather – chilling.
Adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill’s 1983 set text classic The Woman in Black, the play of the same name follows solicitor Arthur Kipps’ journey to lay his own ghosts to rest. This is a rehearsal within a play as The Actor (Anthony Eden) hired by an elderly Kipps (Julian Forsyth) helps Kipps tell his story to try and rid him of the demons that have haunted him for many years, like a form of drama therapy. The Actor assumes the role of Kipps as a younger man when he handled the estate of Mrs Drablow, allowing the at first reluctant senior Kipps to play the other key characters in the tale.
It is an effective storytelling device providing both actors with opportunities for suspense and comedy and Forsyth in particular displays versatility with his portrayals of the doddery Kipps, an edgy innkeeper, landowner and surly pony trap driver.
The Woman in Black, tugging at the long tail of The Mousetrap, has been a West End regular for almost 25 years, originally conceived as a Christmas stocking filler play in 1987 on a tight budget. Characters are signified with a change of jacket, scarf or accent allowing the audience’s imaginations to take over. Judging by their jumpy reactions they were convinced, willing Kipps not to go through the opened door into the unknown and the dark. But, of course, this is a ghost story and we know he must.
With two actors playing numerous characters the pace is well-maintained, aided by the spectre of the Woman in Black herself. Lighting Designer Kevin Sleep and Sound Designer Gareth Owen deserve special mention as their effects add significant atmosphere and depth to the story. Together with Designer Michael Holt’s deceptively bare set, less is definitely more as imaginative use of props, lighting and sound manage to convey misty heathland, a solicitor’s office, a child’s nursery, a railway carriage. It would be tempting to say more only that will spoil the surprises. But be warned, prepare yourself for twists and turns and things that go bump.
This is a classy production, skillfully telling an absorbing tale that plays on some of our worst fears. Whether you’ve already read the novel or seen the film, this is a genuinely spooky show: I found it gripping, tense and had me checking every sound around me, particularly as from the start we are reminded this story is set in this very theatre …
Further information at www.curveonline.co.uk
Images by Tristram Kenton: Touring cast, Fortune Theatre, September 2012