REVIEW: The Woman In Black, PW Productions, haunting Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday *****

As intuitive as a double act: Mark Hawkins, as The Actor, front, and Malcolm James, as Arthur Kipps, in The Woman In Black. Picture: Mark Douet

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:

Why Malcolm James keeps returning to haunted tale of The Woman In Black, on tour at Grand Opera House next week  

Malcolm James in the role of Arthur Kipps, the lawyer burdened with the need to tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul in The Woman In Black, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, from January 30. Picture: Mark Douet

QUESTION: Which play marked the reopening of the Grand Opera House, York, after 547 days of Covid-enforced darkness on September 13 2021?

Answer: Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman In Black, first staged in a pub setting by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, as a Christmas ghost story in 1987.

Now, 869 days later, PW Productions’ tour returns to haunt the York theatre once more, “direct from the West End”, with a cast of Malcolm James as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Mark Hawkins as The Actor.

Malcolm and Mark have previous form for presenting the tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years.  

“We did the show together very briefly in Dubai, for 11 performances, in 2017,” recalls Malcolm. “It might have seemed unusual doing a really ghostly story at Christmas in a modern Dubai building, but it proved very popular, though stepping outside the accommodation and theatre into 40-degree heat was a bit of a learning curve for me!”

Renewing the partnership on the 2023-2024 tour, James and Hawkins will be playing York amid the more apt winter chill, as Arthur Kipps engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. “Mark is a wonderful young actor, very engaged and really committed to the play, bringing such intensity to it, never letting me drop from my A-game,” says Malcolm.

Mark Hawkins as The Actor, left, and Malcolm James as Arthur Kipps in The Woman In Black. Picture: Mark Douet 

He first played Arthur Kipps on the 2014-2015 tour and in a subsequent West End run at the Fortune Theatre, London, in 2016, both with Matt Connor in the role of The Actor. “The show certainly changed from where we started, and that’s one of the joys of doing long runs. I keep learning, as I’ve been doing throughout my career,” says Malcolm.

“After drama school, a three-week run at Leeds Playhouse feels huge, when you’ve not done that before, but then, when you start doing tours, you find out how limiting a short run is. And because The Woman In Black is a two-hander, there’s so much more to explore, as you keep discovering new things, where suddenly a new emphasis is thrown up when one actor says a line differently.”

As ever, Robin Herford is directing the latest tour. “Working again with the same director is a joy because it’s my favourite play, my favourite part, so rewarding, as you get the initial feedback from the chills, the thrills, the mystery, but ultimately it’s a very human story of grief,” says Malcolm.

“Arthur Kipps is full of suffering, tormented by the burden of this demon that he needs to purge by telling his story. This time Robin [Herford] wanted to make it grittier, and it’s definitely become darker and richer, so as much as the audience may get caught up in the ‘jump scares’, they’re relating to the human drama too.”

Malcolm thrives on performing a play that revels in its own theatrical setting, steeped in atmosphere, illusion and horror. “It’s set up from the beginning, just two people on stage who are going to rehearse a play from Kipps’s story with basic props,” he says.

“The audience willingly slips into thinking they are watching the real thing unfold, not just watching two actors, and it absolutely shows the power of what theatre can do that no other medium does, where everyone becomes caught up in a brilliant piece of storytelling.

Malcolm James, left, and Matt Connor on the 2014-2015 tour of The Woman In Black that visited York Theatre Royal in November 2014. Picture: Tristram Kenton

“Stephen Mallatratt is absolutely faithful to the novel and to the language of the period, and he’s brilliant at building up the story, where each time he goes back into the drama, he does it for longer, with comedy and anticipation at first, until the story becomes relentless to the point where most of the second half is set in the [haunted] house.”

The 2014-205 tour brought Malcolm to York Theatre Royal in November 2014. “I haven’t played the Grand Opera House before, and that’s another joy of touring because playing different theatres helps to keep it fresh,” he says.

“In London, we played it in a 1920s’ theatre, The Fortune, which was perfect as it was small and close up, but on tour it’s a challenge every week, such as dealing with the differing acoustics.

“If you’re playing a theatre that’s seen better days, in a play with an old theatre setting, that’s fantastic, and I love working in proscenium-arch theatres for that reason, but it still works in a modern theatre, a big wooden barn, where you’re asking for an extra level of suspension of disbelief.”

First Matt Connor, now Mark Hawkins, Malcolm has enjoyed the chemistry of both partnerships, so vital to the play’s impact. “I’ve been very lucky with both Matt and Mark,” he says. “It’s great if there’s a personal rapport as well as a professional one, and I’ve had that each time, making the relationship work on stage, having a pint together afterwards.”

The Woman In Black spooks Grand Opera House, York, January 30 to February 3, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office:

Copyright of The Press, York

Favourite play, favourite role: Malcolm James’s verdict on playing Arthur Kipps in The Woman In Black

Miles is back but with a different Chain Gang for Black Swan gig on February 19

Miles Salter: Ganging up with new band members

YORK writer, musician and storyteller Miles Salter is back with a new Chain Gang for a headline gig at The Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green, York, on February 19.

“We had some line-up issues with the first version, so I’ve re-wired the band and it sounds great,” says Miles, introducing Daniel Bowater on keyboards and accordion, Steve Purton on drums, Mat Watt on bass and Mark Hawkins on lead guitar.  

“Daniel previously played with Acko Pulco And The Cliff Divers and has been musical director at the Richmond Theatre pantomime for a number of years; Mark is a veteran of hundreds of gigs, including as stand-in guitarist for NoWaySis, the touring Oasis tribute.”

Counting down to the debut gig with the new gang in tow, Salter says: “After a very quiet couple of years – we played just one gig in 2021 – I’m pleased with how the new line-up sounds; it feels great. We’re looking forward to playing more gigs in the area soon.”

The support slots on the 8pm to 11.30pm bill go to Sarah Louise Boyle, Lee Moore and Monkey Paw. “It’ll be a diverse and fun evening, so do come along,” says Salter. 

Tickets are on sale for £5.50 at or at £7.50 on the door.