Terror all in the mind

The Woman in Black

Malvern Theatres

****

WITH only two actors on a bare stage, my first impression was that it would take a lot for this gothic horror play to frighten me. 

I couldn't have been more wrong as the tension mounted through the first half and continued with spine-tingling suspense until it reached a heart-pounding, grim finale. Over the two hour show, I was gripped and terrified to the point of practically biting my nails to the quick. The anticipation was thrilling. 

Susan Hill's novella first haunted readers when it was published in 1983. It then moved on to frighten theatre-goers with this adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt in 1989, which stays true to the essence of the novel. Since then it has also seen a revival through the cinema with a recent film starring Daniel Radcliffe.

The play takes on a slightly different storyline from the book, but in a clever way that actually makes more sense in a theatre setting and even adds a further chilling twist.  

Instead of just the ghost story, it moves the young man from the novel, Kipps, forward in time to old age, when he is hiring an actor to help him recreate his memoirs of encountering the mysterious 'woman in black'.

Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden the space and two hours with a world of characters

The shy, unassuming elderly man says it is to help him "purge his soul" and "finally sleep at night" - a big clue that this going to be a bumpy night. 

It is the gradual acting out of the diary, a play within a play, that unravels the full extent of the horror. It emerges that as a young lawyer, Kipps was sent to the funeral of a woman who had lived an isolated life in Eel Marsh House. The local villagers are strangely muted and unhelpful, while the house turns out to have its own macabre history. 

What makes this play extra special is that all the parts are played by only the two actors on stage, with only scant props and some sound and lighting effects. Any weakness on stage would have left the audience bored or confused, but the excellent abilities of Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden made it seem like there were more actors present. Swiftly transforming between characters, they mesmerised from start to finish. 

Cunningly, the frighteners came mostly from what you couldn't see. The shadows, the noises from behind the locked door, the tricks your mind plays on you. 

This play shows just how powerful and psychological good acting and directing can be. A play that everyone should see. To 18-05-13.

Alison Brinkworth  

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