Now in its 25th year, The Woman in Black is a play I’ve revisited a few times. Generally, I’m more drawn to musical theatre than straight plays but there’s something about this play that keeps on pulling me back.
With a cast of only two – Arthur Kipps and ‘the Actor’ – many first timers wonder how the story can possibly be portrayed effectively with so few cast members. If there’s one thing you don’t need to fear, it’s this. If anything, the lack of people on stage heightens the feeling of isolation which only adds to the atmosphere.
Kipps has sought out ‘the Actor’ to help him tell his story – a story that has haunted him since he visited Eel Marsh house many years before. He feels it is time to share it, and as the audience we are privy to this first, tentative retelling. We are, essentially, watching a play within a play. From the moment Kipps steps onstage and mumbles his way through the first few sentences of his memoirs, we sense his reluctance to tell his tale and this sets us on edge – we know the story to come won’t be pleasant. The tone has been set.
Since setting the atmosphere is so important to get right for this show to work, the pace at the start can seem a little plodding. There are a lot of pauses and re-starts and although it is done quite amusingly (Kipps is no performer) it takes a good 20 minutes for the story of the haunted Eel Marsh House and its tortured resident to begin.
One of my favourite things about this production is the interaction between performer and scenic/technical elements. As ‘the Actor’ explains to Kipps – simply play a track of birds and light traffic and, suddenly, we are outside in the day time. No need for explanation. In one scene, a costume hamper may play the part of a table in a stuffy office. In the next, it becomes a pony & trap with no more than a soundtrack of hooves and whinnies and the choreographed action of motion. At no point, though, do we question the authenticity of the object – in our minds, the hamper is the table or trap.
I found the second act to have a much quicker pace than the first as this is where the mere suggestion of the woman in black turn into actual hauntings and we are kept permanently on the edge of our seats (unless you're my nan, who was "so lovely and warm" in the theatre that she fell asleep!! - with all the screaming, I'm really not sure how).
The roles of Arthur Kipps and ‘the Actor’ were played by Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden respectively. Forsyth gets to show off his versatility as an actor in this role – he starts out as a nervous, bumbling man, who, under ‘the Actor’s’ encouragement, progresses into a more confident performer, taking on the characteristics of the many different residents of the ill fated village of Crythin Gifford. Eden, on the other hand, is almost a parody of his profession as ‘the Actor’ - at times seemingly over the top in his enthusiasm but nevertheless enabling and encouraging Kipps in the unfolding of the story. I’ve seen the roles performed more subtly with previous casts and I do think subtle works best; these performers were skirting a little too close to getting swept away in the high tension for me and this has the danger of it becoming a little ridiculous. Subtlety of performance lends itself to a more believable ghost story.
However, I can’t think of a more admirable demonstration of performance skill than when you find an audience scared for the fate of a dog who is nothing more substantial than suggestion and collective imagination. These two powerful components are expertly woven together throughout and the result is all the commendation this show and these performers need. Well, that, and it's a damn good ghost story that'll cause you to turn all the lights on when you get home.
Woman in Black is currently half way through its tour, so please check the official website http://www.thewomaninblack.com/tour/ for upcoming dates and venues.