PHOTOGRAPHS BY TRISTRAM KENTON
‘Tis the season of bright spring colours and the joy of Easter bunnies, chocolate treats, lambs in fields and birds singing merrily in blossoming trees … but now there’s something completely different; prepare to be totally spooked! The Woman in Black brings out goose bumps and spine chills that don’t come with a broken boiler over winter. Having seen the film a few years ago and remembering feeling mildly entertained, I wasn’t prepared for the jumps and shocks that lay in store in this gripping stage performance.
The story starts when a Mr Arthur Kipps visits an actor in order to have his story told. The actor takes on the task of animating the written text with a certain disdainful professionalism, drawing a few unexpected laughs from the audience. However, as he engages with the role, the tale becomes more sinister as the woman in black’s presence permeates through the theatre.
It is one of the West End’s long runners, with nearly 27 years under its belt. I was intrigued by its longevity, since the horror/suspense genre has become the domain of the blockbuster film industry. However, this was a masterpiece of audience engagement and thrilling suspense that kept us on the edge of our seats. Playwright Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel is a work of theatrical art, drawing on all performance elements. Lighting, sounds, set, special effects and even audience space is used effectively on all our senses. The deceptively minimalist stage set and subdued, even simplistic use of lighting and sound effects lull you, at first, into a false sense of security, asking you to use your imagination and believe in the magic of theatre. We didn’t need much convincing.
It is a two-handed play, originally conceived that way due to budgetary limitations. But this creates an intimacy with the two characters that enhances the unfolding story. David Acton as the nervous Arthur Kipps, scarred from his experiences, and Matthew Spencer, the Actor, with a bold and rather foolish enthusiasm for turning Kipps’s story into a performance, work magically together. The audience feels drawn into the action on stage, encouraged by the familiarity the actors sometimes share with us. It’s all part of the captivating magic of theatre.
The Woman in Black is currently playing at the New Victoria theatre from Tuesday 11- Saturday 15 April at 7.30pm, with matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm.
[Amanda Briggs 12 April 2017]