woman in black 

The Woman in Black

Wolverhampton Grand


We all secretly delight in being scared. Not real fear of death, being chased by a psychotic axe murderer, in mortal danger sort of scared, more safe, parlour game scared, terror you can have a laugh about afterwards – and no fear at all that there isn’t going to be an afterwards.

It’s what makes roller coasters and ghost trains popular, and is the bedrock of horror films  . . . and ghost stories. It’s 40 years since Susan Hills gothic novel first had readers wary of shadows and strange noises as they lay in their beds at night.

The story is deceptively simple. We open in a deserted Victorian theatre on an empty stage with no scenery or set, just Arthur Kipps boring the pants off us recounting some terrible tale, at least he tells us it is terrible, and to emphasis the fact, he is telling it terribly.

He has hired an actor to help him deliver his tale of woe, an actor struggling to get Kipps out of his monotone, mogadon delivery, which provides us with an opening full of laughs, perhaps to set audience minds at ease.

Kipps’ tedious tale relates to a job he was given as a young solicitor to head off to Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral and deal with the estate of one of the firms long standing clients.

The old lady, Mrs. Drablow, had lived alone on a marshy island somewhere off the coast of Yorkshire, near Scarborough I would hazard a guess, but more on that later. The island could only be reached over a causeway that was only accessible at low tide.

The story was interesting, the delivery and lifeless prose, were not, so the actor set about his own dramatization, he playing Kipps and Kipps playing everyone else.

Kipps was managing to suck the life of every part, which did not bode well for the rest of the evening as the humour started to tire until the simple device of the actor handing Kipps a pair of spectacles turned a poor man’s Jackanory into, well more of a Jacobi.

From that instant Kipps became the characters in his tale; the senior solicitor who set the task, the pub waiter, the grumpy pony and trap driver Keckwick, the local agent for the solicitors, Horatio Jerome, and the dour local landowner Samuel Daily.

It is a wonderful performance from Malcolm James, from his sleep inducing opening to the animated collection of souls that inhabit Crythin Gifford, all different in mannerisms, accents and, with a rail of hats and coats on stage, costumes.

Mark Hawkins as The Actor, becomes the young Kipps, bringing life to a tale hidden in Kipps’ turgid tome. While James populates the stage with characters, Hawkins fills it with life and anticipation.

Props are simple, a wicker basket to serve as bureau, table, bed, pony and trap. A couple of chairs, a clothes rail and drapes.

Yet the drapes at the rear are scrims with Kevin Sleeps’ ever busy and telling lighting revealing a graveyard which turns into a child’s bedroom and stairs heading to . . . who knows.

The terror is beautifully dropped in using Sleeps’ clever lighting and sound from Ron Mead and Sebastion Frost. A quick blackout and a piercing scream behind you does tend to add a soupcon of anxiety to proceedings . . . and there were quite a few screams..

There was also the woman in black, at least I think we saw her, or perhaps that was a . . . no, there are no such thing as ghosts, so we will stick with the play being a two hander . . . Shall we?

The ghost story is told, Kipps returns to London,the story ends and we move on . . . except ghosts don’t just die, after all that is how they start, so there is a sad, terrible sting in the tail, just if case you thought it was safe to venture home in the dark.

This really is a fine production, two actors, with few props, even Spider the dog is imaginary, who bring the tale to life, feeding your imagination to build an ancient mansion on a sea mist bedevilled island of dank marsh and quicksand, somewhere off the coast of a village where no one wants to talk of Mrs. Drablow or the unearthly goings on she had brought to this village of the damned.

Director Robin Herford as managed to inject tension a growing element of fear into every scene, the fear coming from the unknown, the implied . . . and the odd blackout and scream behind you, of course, in a clever use of speaker positioning. At times the audience gasps, shocks and jumps were universal and all merely with lights and sounds and building anxiety built by the actors. Marvellous stuff.

The 1983 novel first appeared on stage, in December, four years later. It was a low key affair with somewhat modest ambitions.itions. It was adapted by Stephen Mallatratt and billed a Christmas Ghost Story, the Christmas production that year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (artistic director a certain Alan Ayckbourn) which explains the northern setting.

Kipps’ monologue opens with the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve, which is the festive hook. The setting was a pub and with just two actors, and a ghost, and limited props it was an inexpensive production, a bit of fun for the holiday season.

The play was a hit, so successful that the woman who didn’t exist packed her best black costume and ghosted off to the bright lights of the West End, opening in 1989. The play was tweaked for its move to the capital and designer Michael Holt, changed the setting from a pub bar to an empty theatre.

It seems to have worked. The play closed in March this year after 13,232 performances, making it the second longest running non-musical production in the West End after The Mousetrap.

The woman, who we know doesn’t exist, will be haunting the Grand to 09-09-23

Roger Clarke


The Woman in Black returns to the Midlands running at  Malvern, 6-11 November 2023 and The Alexandra Theatre, 05-10 February 2024

It is rather sad that the day The Woman in Black opened at the Grand, was also the day the producer, Peter Wilson, who had the faith to take the play to the West End, died, aged 72. Our condolences to his family and many friends. 

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