The Woman In Black – Theatre Review

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On a barren stage in a Victorian theatre, a tired older gentleman named Arthur Kipps (John Waters) has a story to tell. He has approached a young actor (Daniel MacPherson) to assist with presenting his lengthy manuscript in a more palatable fashion. In this way, perhaps by speaking of his haunting tale aloud, maybe Arthur will be able to unburden his restless soul.

The actor chastises Arthur for his stiffness in retelling his chronicles. While it may be the old man’s story to tell ‘The Actor’ will shape the method in which it will be conveyed. Emotion, tension, lighting and realistic sound recordings using the latest technology. These are the tools that will be used to bring a long dead story back to life. What’s more, the two men shall tell the entire narrative themselves with The Actor playing a younger Mr Kipps and Arthur performing all the other characters as he remembers them. While performing may not be Arthur‘s forte, before long he has the hang of it, taking to the craft like a duck to water.

Many years earlier when Arthur was a young solicitor he was tasked a special job. He must travel to a small country town named Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of an elderly widow named Mrs Drablow. Arthur must settle her estate for his firm and upon arrival, the locals are simple yet standoffish. It’s as if they know something that they don’t wish to share. Isolated in Mrs Drablow‘s empty house, Arthur experiences things he cannot explain. Noises in the middle of the night, impenetrable fog, hallucinations of carriages and screams of terror. However, most disturbing of all are the visions of a young woman, face pale, silent as the grave and dressed head to toe in black.

In 1983, English writer Susan Hill published The Woman in Black. The ghost story became her best known work thanks in part to its numerous adaptations to stage and screen. In 1987 it was brought to the stage for the first time by playwright Stephen Mallatratt. Utilising only three performers in total and successfully scaring the pants off of audiences, the play was a hit. Lasting for over 30 years it remains the second longest running non-musical West End production ever (bested only by The Mousetrap). With productions all over the world The Woman in Black makes a triumphant return to Melbourne, sure to thrill audiences both new and those returning for another night of frights.

The meta twist taken by the late Stephen Mallatratt gives The Woman in Black‘s stage presentation an added layer which permeates the entire show. It does make the first act drag out unfortunately, but things pick up and it is not without its merits. While it may at first have been a cost cutting measure (limiting the need for sets and actors) it is now one of the play’s most defining features.

Fear comes from imagination and this production encourages us to use ours. The at first minimalist stage, simple costumes and hokey props are poked fun at in fourth wall breaking winks to the audience. As the play reaches into its second act, sound effects, trick lighting and the like increase, but our own minds do the heavy lifting and we find ourselves immersed into this gothic old creepy abode with foggy graveyards and marshy bogs. Soon, even the very nature of their being merely two performers on stage enhances the ambience.

The lighting by Kevin Sleep along with Sebastian Frost‘s sound design is enough to transform the simple stage into a house of horrors. The back curtain which appears first to be a basic drop cloth becomes translucent and explores the estate’s most daunting areas.

The audience are also encouraged to have a good time with the play being much more comedic than I would have thought. From the opening banter between Waters and MacPherson’s characters, there is humour throughout. Admittedly, while I did have difficulties fully reconciling the two shifting tones, I found myself taking the plunge into fear all the same.

Daniel MacPherson, whom I recently saw in the spooky 2:22 A Ghost Story play returns to the genre with gusto. In this “play within a play” he jumps between the charismatic actor persona and that of the young Mr Kipps. Prim, proper, sceptical at first before being drawn into the depths of fear itself.

But John Waters, who makes his return to The Woman in Black after its 2006-2007 tour, truly impresses. The role reversal between the “actor” and “novice” comes to light as he portrays the majority of the parts himself. Even when not playing a specific character he sets the scene with moody and narration and lengthy monologues which he delivers impeccably well.

The Woman in Black has remained the success that it is for so long for a reason. 34 years on the West End, translated to 12 different languages and playing in over 40 countries to nearly seven million people! Susan Hill and Stephen Mallatratt’s work will live on with productions as spectacular as this one. Two brilliant actors and direction from Robin Herford (with Antony Eden as Associate Director) bring us a bone chilling yet still humorous show that’s a ghoulishly fun time!

Presented by PW Productions, Woodward Productions and Neil Gooding Productions, The Woman in Black is currently playing at The Athenaeum in Melbourne’s CBD until 6th of July.
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Photography by Justin Nicholas.

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