"The Woman in Black" is the stage adaptation of the very popular horror storywritten by Scarborough born author Susan Hill in 1983. The story is that of retired solicitor Arthur Kipps and his dealings as a young man with the estate of Mrs Alice Drablow and his life changing visits to the small market town of Crythin Gifford to attend her funeral and then on to her large isolated and secluded property across a tidal causeway at the desolate Eel Marsh House.
This story is written in the style of a great gothic horror story, and like one of the greatest of all stories in that genre - "Dracula" - the story takes it roots in a journal written by Arthur Kipps about his experiences there.
The stage play is a very clever adaptation of the story that was originally performed in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough as a low budget play to cover the Christmas 1987 season. Director Robin Herford had approached his friend and playwright Stephen Mallatratt to find a way to bring the book to the stage within the very small budget that they had available to work with, Somehow, Stephen produced a very ingenious script that used only two actors to perform the many characters of the story. The principal character Arthur Kipps now desperate to unburden his soul by telling his story written down by him to a family and a few friends approaches a stage actor to help him develop his oratory skills. In a very clever move, the actor becomes Kipps and Kipps becomes the many characters of his journal.
This is where we start to enter the magical world that only theatre can go into at this level...audience participation in joint imagination. The set itself is a very simple set of a sparse theatre stage. We start with Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) alone on stage talking in a very low voice the first few lines from his story. The Actor (Matt Connor) appears out of the stalls and comes on stage to advise on proper theatrical presentation to an audience. There is no hiding from an audience when there are only two of you on stage, and both actors very quickly pull you into their world. Watching these two very good actors on stage tonight is a vey simple demonstration of how powerful a well told story can be (how do they remember all those lines?). Theatre provides a direct link and engagement with the story-teller that other formats such as film and television just do not have. A stage on a stage is of course the perfect setting to do this with, particularly is a wonderful old (and relatively small) theatre like we have at The King's Theatre. There is something compelling about watching Malcolm James making it obvious in his role of Kipps that he is not an actor and then watching as he develops some of the skills required to be a stage performer. Audience imagination is required here from the beginning as no other story telling media asks an audience to believe that a large box and chair can become a seat on a train or a horse and carriage. It is no small tribute to the acting skills of our two performers that they get you to so completely enter their world that this simple set becomes so many things in so many places.
This is of course a gothic horror tale and we need some classic elements in it - a funeral, a graveyard, frightened local people, a ghost, bad weather, a big scary house and the feeling that something is just about to happen. All of these elements are there but carefully set by a very talented crew of designers consisting of Michael Holt (Designer), Kevin Sleep & Tony Simpson (Lighting) and Gareth Owen (Sound). I mention the designers here as it is their skills in providing the stage visuals and sounds that allow this story to be told so effectively with only two performers.
The problem with reviewing a production like "The Woman in Black" is always that if you tell too much you ruin the experience of the show for anyone going. A gothic horror story in particular needs its "bumps in the night", and much of that is lost if you know what is coming. I am not going to tell you that, find out for yourself.
"The Woman in Black" is running at The King's Theatre in Edinburgh until Saturday 18th April, so try and catch it. If you miss this performance you do get another chance to see the production as it moves onto Glasgow next week at the Theatre Royal. Details are below
Review by Tom King