THE chill night air. Water, water, everywhere. York, the city with even more ghosts than hotel rooms, was putting on its own show for the umpteenth yet ever-welcome return of The Woman In Black, the ghost story by Susan Hill from up the road in Scarborough.
The Grand Opera House has its resident ghost, said to greet new members of staff by name on first acquaintance in the auditorium, but once more there was a rival in town: one Jennet Humphrey, the “Woman” in the title of Stephen Mallatratt’s meta-theatrical adaptation, first staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in December 1987 in winter ghost-story season tradition.
That said, The Woman In Black could be staged anywhere, any season, as the latest touring partnership of Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins can testify. They first teamed up as tormented lawyer Arthur Kipps and the whippersnapper-keen Actor for 11 performances in the 40-degree heat of Dubai, modern Madinat Theatre auditorium et al, in 2017.
James has his long service medal already, having appeared in the play’s 2014-2015 tour, visiting York Theatre Royal on that itinerary, and undertaking a subsequent London stretch at The Fortune in 2016.
Hawkins has played The Fortune too, and bringing that combined experience to Mallatratt’s adroit storytelling they make for a terrific partnership, as intuitive as a double act and admirably unfazed when the smog engulfing the stage sets off the smoke alarm.
Sitting next to the 13 to 16-year-olds from Stokesley, North Yorkshire, attending the opening night as part of their theatre studies, was a chance for a veteran reviewer to encounter The Woman In Black as if for the first time. Their changing reactions, as the early humour made way for the gravest, ghostly, ghastly deeds, added to the joys of this masterpiece of theatre’s unrivalled powers of imagination and invention.
As ever, Robin Herford is still directing the fright night’s scares, with Antony Eden, The Actor in the previous tour to York en route to more than 1,000 performances, as his associate director. As ever too, as billed in the programme, “the action takes place in this theatre in the early 1950s”.
Harder to imagine in Dubai, maybe, but the Grand Opera House is the perfect grand setting for the play within the play in a disused theatre within a theatre, where Michael Holt’s design, with its clever use of gauze, takes delight in gradually revealing a shadowy stairwell, dark passages, a mysteriously locked door and, spoiler alert, a children’s bedroom with toys untouched from 50 years ago.
Rod Mead’s sound design, administered on tour by Sebastian Fost, has a way of utilising all the theatre to surprise and jolt, while Kevin Sleep’s light design, now “re-lit” on tour by Alexander Hannah, is, pardon the pun, a highlight of the show, adding to the tension, constantly showing the stage in a different light that has you wondering where the Woman In Black might next appear. Not so much Sleep as sleepless, such is the disturbing presence.
As for the storytelling, James and Hawkins, as much as Mallatratt and Herford, excel in the more-is less-approach as James’s haunted, stultified Kipps seeks to exorcise the fear that has burdened his soul for so long, to end the curse on his family.
“For my health, for reason”, his story must be told, he says, and with the help of Hawkins’s Actor, on the wings of imagination, his rambling book of notes will become a play so powerful, it no longer feels like a play, but an all-consuming reality destined to play out forever.
The Actor becomes Kipps, the young solicitor sent to attend to the murky, isolated, wretched English marshland estate of the newly dead Alice Drablow, while James’s Kipps, once he sheds his stage novice reserve, takes on all manner of roles, from narrator, hotel host and taciturn pony and trap driver, to an even more haunted old solicitor and wary landowner.
All the while, Kipps is ever more traumatised by his fears rising anew, and likewise Mallatratt applies the sleight of hand of a magician as the drama within takes over from the act of making it, while simultaneously glorying in theatre, acting skills and the British love of a ghost story.
No need for high-tech special effects, The Woman In Black is old-fashioned, storytelling theatre-making, in which the terrifying theatrical re-enactment is applied with only two chairs, a stool, a trunk of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed theatre curtain.
Smoke, shrieks, horse’s hooves and the Woman In Black’s spectral face play their part too, James and Hawkins handling the reins as deftly as an Olympic equestrian yet in thrall to a story beyond their control. Theatre at its best. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.