When Susan Hill’s chilling novel The Woman in Black was first published in 1983, little could she have known that some 32 years later it would still be haunting theatre audiences on a countrywide tour, writes Alan Wooding.
In a tale which still sends shivers down the spines of those who chose to see it, the touring production of The Woman in Black is in Milton Keynes this week, having become the second longest running West End stage production – after the Mousetrap – with over seven million people having enjoyed it.
Adapted for the stage by playwright Stephen Mallatratt from crime writer Hill’s Gothic-style novel, it has played the Fortune Theatre in London’s West End since 1989, having originally debuted in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph, the theatre made famous for hosting Alan Ayckbourn plays.
The Woman in Black is really a play within a play which features just two speaking actors plus a backstage crew who add to the drama with clever dimmed lighting and various timely soundtracks.
It’s a tale of lawyer Arthur Kipps who is obsessed by a 30-year-old curse which he believes had been cast upon him and his family by a phantom dressed in black.
Played on a minimalist stage, it stars Malcolm James as Kipps who, while hoping to tell his story to an audience, realises that he needs to employ the services of The Actor, played by Matt Connor, who not only helps him with his delivery, but he also helps turn what is a tragic story into a chilling ghostly drama.
While the experienced James plays several characters in the play, it’s the younger man who takes over Kipps’ role as a solicitor in the retelling.
He is sent to wind up the affairs of 87-year-old deceased Alice Drablow who lived alone at the desolate Eel Marsh House. Her island based house is only accessible via a narrow causeway at low tide and is surrounded by deadly marshes and quicksands which are there to catch the unwary.
With the old lady having spent her life as a virtual recluse in the remote mansion – which the locals fear going anywhere near – Kipps’ attempt to clear up her affairs uncovers a chilling story.
Although it’s years later when the play actually begins, Kipps recounts the grisly experiences to his family and friends in a desperate bid to exorcise the ghosts from his own past.
Using the most basic of props on the minimal set – a wicker laundry basket, a chair and stool plus a coat rack – a host of sound effects help create the atmosphere and, by letting your own imagination run wild, it’s can evoke an eerie experience.
James and Connor are faultless in their delivery of such a wordy script, the younger actor in particular having perfect diction thus allowing everyone in the theatre to hang on his every syllable. But while the acting was superb, the story’s chill factor didn’t quite do it for me as much as it did to some members of the audience.
The 2012 film adaptation of The Woman in Black which starred Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe became the biggest grossing British horror film in over 20 years but sadly playwright Mallatratt never saw it as he died just aged 57 in November 2004.
The play is directed by Robin Herford, who also directed the original cast at Scarborough in 1987, while Kevin Sleep is responsible for the lighting with sound by Gareth Owen and set design courtesy of Michael Holt.
The Woman in Black plays Milton Keynes until this Saturday (28 March) at 7.30pm nightly with matinees on both Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced from £17.50 (booking fees apply). Call the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes