❉ The Woman in Black stalks the stage of the Torch Theatre in a formidable production.
Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows…
Many years later, one Christmas Eve, Arthur’s step-children invite him to tell a ghost story. Arthur is too disturbed by his memories to share his story aloud, so he writes it down.
Susan Hill’s Victorian-era horror story ‘The Woman In Black’ has been chilling all who fall under its spell since its publication in 1983. A rattling good yarn, its popularity has translated off the shelf and into TV screens, with a memorable 1989 ITV adaptation, on the large screen, as a Hammer Film Production starring Daniel Radcliffe, and as a long-running, two-hander play adapted by Stephen Mallatratt.
It is in this particular incarnation that ‘The Woman In Black’ stalks the stage once again, as the latest theatrical production from The Torch Theatre Company. The Torch Theatre Company has a reputation which extends far beyond the small coastal town where it resides, with a string of critical successes and an esteemed reputation stretching across its four decades’ old history; recent hits include the sublime ‘Brief Encounter’ and biographical dramas based on the lives of rugby legend Ray Gravell (‘Grav’) and tragic Carry On star Charlie Hawtrey (‘Oh Hello’).
‘The Woman In Black’ builds upon the successful formula of 2014’s chiller ‘The Turn of the Screw’, by harnessing the same highly competent, effective combination of stagecraft, finely tuned performances, simple yet effective use of lighting, audio effects and back projection, and atmospheric flourishes that made for such a memorable production.
Although written in 1983, ‘The Woman In Black’ takes you right back to the era of the Victorian gothic chiller, reminiscent of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and the classic ghost stories of M.R. James, with its ghostly apparitions, foreboding empty houses full of dreadful secrets, the corruption of innocence, something nasty in the nursery, an oppressive sense of the past haunting the present, and the ever-present theme of infant mortality (In Victorian England, the average infant mortality was one in every three children).
Mallatratt’s stage adaptation – the second-longest running, non-musical West End play after the deathless ‘The Mousetrap’ – is an inventive treatment that is deliberately pared down, and plays to the unique qualities of the theatrical medium: it is, essentially, the classic Shakespearean device of “a play within a play”, where we are the audience for the novel’s protagonist, widower Arthur Kipps’ attempt to ‘exorcise’ himself of his experiences by telling his fateful story in the form of a dramatic reading for family and friends. A young Actor aids and abets his efforts at dramatizing his tale, harrying him over his underwhelming delivery. After a disagreement, Kipps and the Actor agree that the Actor will play young Kipps while Kipps will play all the other characters and narrate the play. We then oversee the pair run through the play from beginning to end.
The discussions between the older Kipps and the actor provide a larger amount of levity than one might expect from a horror story, and so those expecting to settle in with a spooky yarn may initially find their expectations confounded. While it is true that one may find the digressions during the first half of the play pull one out of the story just as the mood is beginning to settle, the audience’s patience with the inexperienced, uncertain Kipps and his rambunctious theatrical accomplice is rewarded once the play within a play strikes its form – making spectacular use of the barely dressed stage and enhanced by some incredibly effective use of spot lighting, sound FX, the darkened auditorium and a gauze screen upstage.
Praise is also due to the two performers who carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders. Rhys Meredith as the enthusiastic young Actor gives an energetic performance with a capital P, throwing himself full-bodied into the role of younger Kipps; as the older Kipps narrating the tale, Ioan Hefin has a careworn charm and gives a nuanced reading, subtly varying his performance to play Kipps acting out the other roles, and his sombre, Celtic lilt seems to convey the air of a haunted, harried survivor of ghostly torments and tragic loss beyond words alone. It is also a joy seeing the older Kipps make the transition over the course of the play from reluctant performer to engaging presence – quite a journey in the hands of a two-hour, two-hander.
To reveal anything more precise about the production would be to deprive you of the chills and tingles that are an essential factor of ‘The Woman In Black’s enduring appeal. If you’re a first timer, hold onto your chair to avoid jumping out of your seat as the titular woman (a mute Miriam O’Brien) flits in and out of reality.
You can’t beat an old-fashioned ghost story and this is one of the best – up there with James’ Christmas Ghost stories and atmos-heavy haunted house spook-fests such as ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Others’ where the power is in imagination and suggestion as much as some well-timed ‘jumps’.
Atmospheric, accomplished, and effectively realised, ‘The Woman In Black’ is a worthy addition to the Torch’s proven track record of stage hits, and just the ticket as we ease into the long autumn nights…
❉ ‘The Woman In Black’ by Stephen Malltratt & Susan Hill, directed by Peter Doran, is A Torch Theatre Company production. By special permission from PW Productions.
❉ ‘The Woman In Black’ is running at Torch Theatre from 6 October to 22 October. To book, call 01646 695267. This show is set to sell out so book early. Visit torchtheatre.co.uk
❉ We Are Cult would like to thank Guy Woodham, Peter Doran and Karen Lewis for their assistance.