REVIEW: The Woman In Black, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
AFTER terrifying visits in 2013 and 2014, York Theatre Royal has gone back to Black for a wintry chill in 2019. Scream the house down for a ticket; this ghost story is still the best in the fright night business, although Gaslighting and the Grand Opera House-bound revival of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories are guaranteed to scare you witless too.
Stephen Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation began life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough, and this latest touring production still retains its original director and designer, Robin Herford and Michael Holt. Well, if it ain’t broke, etc etc.
It is an old-fashioned piece, but delightfully so, with no hi-tech special effects. Instead, the programme states “harmless stage smoke and sudden loud effects are used in this production”. What matters is how they are used: the smoke gradually envelops you in a disorientating murk; the sound effects go off all around you, whether the approach of a horse’s hooves or jolting, silence-shattering screams. Cue shrieks, gasps and nervous audience laughter that ripple outwards through the stalls to the dress circle in waves.
Mallatratt’s two-hander begins in a dusty theatre as elderly lawyer Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) employs a young actor (Daniel Easton) to help him exorcise the fear that has filled his soul for more than 50 years. “For my health, my reason,” he says, “It must be told. I cannot bear the burden any longer.”
That burden is a stultifying obsession with the curse that he believes a spectral woman in a black cape with a wasted face has placed on his family. The Actor is initially sceptical, his mood light and cocky, yet the depth of Kipps’s desire to recover his peace of mind starts to grip the thespian too, and in turn the audience…whether a newcomer or a returnee glutton for more spine shivers.
The terrifying tale with the terrible toll is told in a theatrical re-enactment rendered with only two chairs, a skip of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed curtain.
Behind this gauze partition are the stairwell, passages, rooms and contents of the haunted Eel Marsh House, as the Actor plays young Arthur Kipps and stage novice Mr Kipps adapts himself to all manner of other parts, while growing ever more paralysed by resurgent fears as the story unfolds of his ill-fated errand as a young solicitor.
Sebastian Frost’s restless sound effects align with Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, where shadows and darkness wrestle with light for dominance, as Easton and Goodale re-create Kipps’s flesh-creeping journey to the eerie marshlands: an isolated place forever at odds with its wretched self.
As much as The Woman In Black is a ghost story first and foremost, in Mallatratt’s hands, it is also a celebration of the craft of acting, the power of storytelling and the role of the imagination.
Designed as a play within a play, the drama within takes over from the act of making it. You never see the horse and cart or a dog called Spider, but you feel their presence and you rise to applaud Easton and Goodale for having you wholly in their grip, as Hertford’s direction steers this eerie ghost ride with grave concern but dark humour too.
Review by Charles Hutchinson
Copyright of The Press, York