The Actor and Arthur Kipps on the trail of the woman in black. Picture: Mark Douet

The Woman in Black

Coventry Belgrade


It's tempting - perhaps unfair, perhaps not - to say this was an exceptionally boring play.

Except that this adaptation (Daily Telegraph: "‘The most brilliantly effective spine-chiller you will ever encounter") of Susan Hill's 'legendary' 1983 novel was saved by its two splendid, dogged actors - it features only two, although a third, the ghostly and ghastly woman, fleets by three or four times before her horrendous last, full-face appearance. (The film starring Daniel Radcliffe, a dozen years ago, included a cast of eighteen, although it too has problems).

Malcolm James (a West Midlander born in Walsall), is the sane narrator and initiator, Mr. Kipps, and Mark Hawkins (the 'Actor', but really the victim, or imaginer), dangerously more daring, but increasingly terrified or maddened by the second half, did a marvellous - and very demanding - job. Their interplay - as snappy as (say) Waiting for Godot - was excellent. All the more so as together they had to carry the whole play.

Extraordinary that the production opened in London's West End in 1989 - two years after its northern premiere (Scarborough, 1987, only four years after the book); and was still on show in the capital in March 2023, becoming (at 13,232 performances), its second longest-running stagework (apart from Musicals) after The Mousetrap.

The Sound effects (Ron Mead and Sebastion Frost) at the Belgrade (which enjoyed an admirable and most impressive full house) were aptly grim, searing and superbly calibrated, their timing perfect. Even a tinkling like a kind of musical box or glass harmonica managed to chill. But even more than the untiring actors, one was profoundly impressed - top prize, possibly the real hero - by the Lighting (Kevin Sleep) A whole host of different colours, some but not all pastels, helped flood the stage and keep both the show and the audience on tenterhooks. All the spotlighting was - as it were - spot on. Backstage team as well: when an eerie fog or mist totally envelops and further scares the protagonist, yet another nervy element to increase the tension, it fits the bill, both gripping and blinding.

A host of supernatural, or at least unexpected, happenings intervene: a (the most?) sinister one is a creaking rocking chair - who is rocking, when supposedly noone is there? But of course someone is, or seemingly is, a ghoulish spectre, especially sinister because (of course) clad in black. Most times she is accompanied by a deafening scream that sears the marrow and reminds one, if anything, of the most terrifying scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (Anthony Perkins), or Donald Sutherland's doomed final encounter in Don't Look Now.

Director Robin Herford’s production started with a very amusing twosome ("I don't wish to be an Olivier"), the pair interacting perfectly, as they would throughout (Malcolm James taking a vast sequence of parts, including here a stumbling speechmaker. cleverly differentiated). Several of the best moments - by both performers - were soliloquies of appealing power, and a series of pregnant silences (more than just pauses) from 'The Actor' (Hawkins) added to the atmosphere, as did the sudden - sensibly conceived - blackness dividing a number of scenes.

The bareish stage (a few items, including a box or trunk containing significant letters, and a somehow disturbing tallboy, one of a handful of disturbing, increasingly nerve-wracking items emerging behind a transparent or net curtain into which the younger, to increasing obvious disadvantage, dares to penetrate; although the static nature of the stage - bar a very effectively designed rickety staircase ascending which he finds various relics including the creaking rocking chair - does make for a sameyness when the book (adapter Stephen Mallatratt) inolves a whole variety of settings. This is one aspect that limits the cogency of the production for stage as a whole (although the audience still lapped it up).

The youngster vows to stick it out, find out the answers and not to run away. A delightful element is when a dog, Spider, joins the team - although he doesn't exist, but is very wittily imagined by the actors, and by us. But it is the absence of additional Susan Hill characters - notably Mr. Jerome and Sam Daily, but others too - that makes this staging rather restricting. Shorn of so many elements of subplot. It can stand as it is, an extended dialogue, not in itself an impossible format, but the ghosting of the lad is only part of the original, and the whole night surely might have gained attractiveness and differentiation by the introduction of others, and by some greater variety of set. Actually the lack of the latter throws emphasis on the words, which are themselves impressively varied, not least during the later stages when Kipps comes on in a maroon smoking jacket - a very good scene, or scenes, in fact.

By now the younger is going quite mad, and in his agitation and frenetic racing around displayed splendidly the madness he is falling into.

And then he encounters - and we see, full face - the Woman. Does she then really exist? Gothic horror. Chilling to the bone. To 04-05-24.

Roderic Dunnett


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