Kipps and Actor

David Acton as Kripps and Matthew Spencer as the actor

The Woman in Black

Wolverhampton Grand


For some strange reason we like to be scared – not chased by ravenous wolves or cornered by a homicidal loony scared, just sitting in front of the telly or in a warm theatre scared, the sort of fear where you can make a cup of tea or have an ice cream in the interval.

And this adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 Gothic horror story is perhaps the most frightening thing you are likely to see on stage, it’s a goose bumps, neck hairs to attention, spine tingling classic which will chill even the most cynical soul to the bone. In short, its great fun – in that love to be frightened sort of way.

It is horror achieved with that greatest of special effects, the human mind – with the assistance of a few bangs, flashes and screams of course. No computer graphics, no laborious make up, no big budget effects, just two actors, minimal props, a ghost story . . . and for those who can see her, a ghost.

The tale is set in a theatre, let us say the Grand, a century ago, on an empty stage, a place left to memories and ghosts when the actors depart.

Retired solicitor Arthur Kipps wants to tell his friends and family about a terrible experience that befell him in his youth, but as a man boring enough to be a decent substitute for anaesthetic, he has employed an actor to help him improve his delivery, an opening which is genuinely funny with comic moments and laughs a plenty – all belying the terror to come.

Between them, as the tale is fleshed out, the pair are tasked with playing a host of characters with David Acton as Kipps showing remarkable skill as he switches from the older Kipps, wanting to tell his tale, to playing villagers, landowners, publicans and the strange pony and trap driver Keckwick, all inhabitants of the remote English village of Crythin Gifford which holds a terrifying secret - (imagine flash of lightning and terrible crash of thunder for effect at this point).

Matthew Spencer plays the actor, hired to help dramatize, or at least help make Kipps journal interesting - its tedium by far more frightening than the terror it relates. He also plays Kipps the younger as the dramatization descends into horror. It is a mammoth task for both men and they do a magnificent job full of convincing terror and emotion which flows out into the audience like the sea frets (mists) that rise from nowhere off the village coast.

The young Kipps

Matthew Spencer as the young Kipps with Eel Marsh House in the background

Kipps’ journal centres upon the death of a Mrs Drablow, a reclusive widow, who lived in Eel Marsh House, a Gothic mansion on Nine Lives Causeway, an island of marshes and quicksand reached only at low tide across the causeway that gives t its name.

She is a woman, in a house and on an island that the villagers will not talk about, any mention threatens to expose the horror hidden in their terrible secret. Then there is the mysterious figure of the gaunt woman dressed in black who appears at the funeral and by the graveyard at Eel Marsh House as Kipps, the London solicitor tasked with dealing with her estate, goes through the widow’s papers.

The secret will be revealed of course, bit by painful bit, but not before we have been frightened out of our wits starting by Kipps, heading north, being near deafened on a train going through a tunnel – somehow you don’t get the same shock with today’s boring electric trains.

And with the audience getting one jump out of the way they are ready for more with some hair raising and blood curdling sounds and terror inducing lighting from Gareth Owen’s sound and Keven Sleep’s lighting designs. There is clever use of shadows, huge and vaguely sinister as well as simple but effective back projections to suggest the house or a church. Full marks to the operators who got every cue spot on, by the way.

The set, designed by Michael Holt, is deceptively simple, an empty stage but behind a gauze at the back is a cemetery, a secret room and a whole world of implied Gothic horror.

It is all beautifully fashioned terror, theatre created merely by superb performances by two actors, their emotions preying on our own, awaking our imaginations, with the entire audience jumping and gasping, followed by a nervous laugh, time after time.

There are moments of levity mind, such as when landowner Sam Daily loans Kipps his dog, Spider, who we have to imagine, as a companion on the island. Her size and reluctance to go spark some lovely comedy.

Director Robin Herford builds the tension nicely, well controlled and slowly rising until we discover the terrible secret and its aftermath – and that means there is just time for a little twist in the tail to give you something to think about on the way home.

The result is a wonderful example of the art of theatre from writing, setting, lighting, sound, acting and direction all coming together in a deliciously frightening way. To 27-05-17.

Roger Clarke


The late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation was commissioned by his friend Robin Herford, then artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, who asked him to write a ghost story as the last production of the year to run in the 70 seater studio over Christmas 1987. It had some restrictions in that Herford’s budget was almost gone and he could only afford to pay four actors.

The result was The Woman in Black and Mallatratt, conscious of the budgetary constraints, had turned it into a two hander. Audiences liked it and a year later, January 1989, the award winning play opened in the West End where it is still going strong, the second longest running play after The Mousetrap.

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